- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2001

Airlines are unlikely to retain sole authority over which companies serve as the first line of defense at airports scanning carry-on luggage and passengers.
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to gain authority from the Office of Management and Budget to certify screening companies hired by the airlines, perhaps as soon as this month.
But it is not clear whether giving the FAA new responsibility to oversee screeners, much maligned since Tuesday's hijacking of four commercial airplanes, will reduce the massive turnover among screeners or boost their meager pay.
"Those are still issues that will need to be addressed," FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said.
Screeners' low pay and high turnover do nothing to encourage those concerned about the safety of the nation's air-travel system.
Airlines have hired screeners since the program began in 1973, and the airport security workers check about 2 million passengers and their bags each day. But they let an alarming number of weapons and dangerous objects aboard planes, studies show, and it appears their ineffectiveness has gotten worse.
Screeners in 1978 failed to detect 13 percent of dangerous objects in tests by the FAA. In 1987, screeners missed 20 percent of objects in the same tests. By April 2000, separate tests by the Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General revealed a new security lapse. In tests from December 1998 through April 1999, officials with the inspector general's office penetrated secure areas in eight airports, then boarded aircraft 117 times, a problem for which screeners were partially blamed.
A General Accounting Office report issued last year concluded there was no single reason that dangerous objects got past screeners and onto U.S. airplanes.
But low wages, high turnover and inadequate training are among the primary factors, the GAO said.
"It is far from a perfect system," said Billie H. Vincent, former FAA security director and chief executive of aviation security firm Aerospace Services International Inc. in Chantilly.
Turnover among screeners at Baltimore-Washington International Airport reached 155 percent from May 1998 to April 1999.
It reached 90 percent at Washington Dulles International Airport during the same period and 47 percent at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. From May 1998 through April 1999, turnover among screeners at 19 U.S. airports averaged 125 percent.
Low wages are a big reason screeners don't stay at jobs.
Screeners typically are paid at or near the minimum wage, according to the GAO report, and at one airport last year screeners earned $6.25 an hour. That was less than the $7 an hour workers at one of the airport's fast food restaurants earned. The airport wasn't identified.
Staffing airport checkpoints with minimum-wage workers isn't the best way to promote safety, critics of the nation's airline safety measures argue.
"We're talking about national security. The decision about who is a terrorist is being made by people who wish they could go get a better job," said Mary Schiavo, an aviation disaster lawyer and former inspector general of the Transportation Department.
The people who hijacked four airplanes, steering three into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, seemingly passed through security checkpoints unnoticed, even though they were armed with knives and box cutters.
Employees of Argenbright Security, owned by Securicor PLC, based in London, guard the security checkpoints at Dulles, Logan International Airport in Boston and Newark International Airport, the three airports where planes were hijacked Tuesday. The company also was hired by Delta Air Lines to staff a security checkpoint at Reagan National.
Argenbright pleaded guilty last year to allowing 1,300 untrained screeners to operate checkpoints. A corporate official at Argenbright's regional office in Chantilly did not return a phone call yesterday seeking comment.
Under current rules, screening companies must provide just 12 hours of classroom training to new employees, followed by 40 hours of on-the-job training.
The FAA wants to increase classroom training to 40 hours. Boosting the amount of training airport security companies give workers will increase their investment in employees and could cause companies, unwilling to let highly trained workers bolt for more lucrative jobs, to increase salaries, Mr. Vincent said.
"There is no way right now for the FAA to force the screening companies to pay worker a certain amount of money. But they can force them to increase their investment in personnel," he said.
If the FAA is given the authority to certify screeners, it will be the agency's first crack at regulating the companies and improving their performance.
"Screening has been a problem for a long time," Mr. Takemoto said. "Hopefully this will let us address some, if not all, of the problems."


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