- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

ATLANTA (AP) Argenbright Security Inc., once the nation's largest passenger-screening company, is making an airport departure of its own. And many people will be glad to see it go.
Argenbright will be nearly gone from U.S. airports next week, all but forced out of the business by a string of security breaches: Criminals were found working as screeners, gates were left unattended and weapons got onto planes even after September 11, the day hijackers walked past Argenbright screeners in Newark, N.J., and Washington.
The attacks and the lapses spurred the federal government to take over U.S. airport security. Passenger screening will be done by federal employees instead of security companies under contract to the airlines.
The Transportation Department is retaining more than 70 security companies until the government takes over screening in November. But it refused to work with Argenbright in the meantime.
"What you didn't see was anybody going to bat for Argenbright." said Paul Turk, a spokesman for the new Transportation Security Administration
Before September 11, Argenbright had operations at 40 percent of U.S. airports and 6,000 screeners. Most of the company's 30 to 40 remaining contracts expire Monday, though Argenbright will remain at a half-dozen larger U.S. airports for several weeks.
With the loss of its screening business, Argenbright is down to 10,000 employees from as many as 16,000. It is also scrambling to adjust to the loss of more than a third of its revenue (the exact figure is not reported separately by its corporate parent), reorganize into two divisions and come up with a new name for the tainted company.
Of the two companies created out of the shell of Argenbright, one will provide security for corporate clients, while the other will handle airport operations such as skycap and wheelchair services.
"I can understand that as a political fact of life the government, understandably, wanted to give their assurance to the public" by getting rid of Argenbright and other security companies, said Argenbright chief executive, David J. Beaton, a former lieutenant colonel in the British Army. But he defended Argenbright and said it had "good, loyal employees, and 99.9 percent of them did an outstanding job."
The company was founded by Frank Argenbright Jr. in 1979 and got its start providing polygraph services to trucking companies. After the airline industry was deregulated in the 1980s, the Atlanta-based company grew quickly as an inexpensive passenger screener.
In December 2000, the British company Securicor PLC bought it for $185 million and soon shuffled the founder into retirement.
Well before the terrorist attacks, in May 2000, Argenbright agreed to pay more than $1 million after federal prosecutors accused it of hiring felons to work at checkpoints at Philadelphia International Airport.
After the attacks, Argenbright became a symbol of everything that was wrong with airport security: low pay, high turnover, lax review of applicants' records, little oversight and a lack of accountability.
Mr. Beaton said no one was fired as a direct result of any actions on September 11.
"There's absolutely no evidence that either Argenbright or any of the screening companies did anything wrong" that day, he said, because the box cutters the hijackers carried were not prohibited on planes. "There was no breakdown in screening that led to the events of 9/11."
After September 11, Argenbright lost its contract at Boston's Logan Airport because of security lapses. (The two jets that brought down the World Trade Center took off from Logan but left from gates that were guarded by a security company other than Argenbright.)
And Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport evicted Argenbright after its failure to screen job applicants. In November, Argenbright screeners allowed a man through a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with knives and a stun gun.
Mr. Beaton said the company has "zero tolerance" for such breaches and reviews them swiftly, resulting in firings. But the lapses do not reflect any systemic problems at Argenbright, he said.
"The reality of that is that if you are the biggest company, with nearly half the business, there are always going to be breakdowns," he said.
Mr. Beaton said Securicor always planned a full reorganization of Argenbright but that the terrorist attacks sped up the process.
As for the media clamor and replacement of security companies by government employees, Mr. Beaton said, "I think it was unfair. I think it was unnecessary. I think, ultimately, the flying public is not going to be better served than they would with the private sector."


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