- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Passengers at the nation's airports will notice nothing different when the federal government takes control of commercial aviation Sunday despite big changes behind the scenes, transportation officials said yesterday.

Until now, airlines hired private security firms for baggage screening and other security at airports. The September 11 attacks, and frailties it exposed in aviation security, motivated Congress in the fall to create the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and authorize the federal government to take over the job at 429 airports. The deadline set by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act for the takeover is Sunday.

"The transition is not intended to be a dramatic event in the public perception," said Michael Jackson, the agency's deputy secretary. "But it is a significant event."

The federal takeover means that private security firms at airports will lose their contracts. Argenbright Security, the biggest private security firm at airports, can hold on to its contracts beyond Sunday at airports where it operates as the only security firm.

However, even Argenbright will lose its contracts, probably within weeks, Mr. Jackson said.

"We do expect Argenbright to be replaced," Mr. Jackson said.

However, the company's baggage screeners who have performed well will be given the option of holding their jobs as federal employees.

Argenbright was in charge of security at Washington Dulles International Airport and Boston's Logan International Airport on September 11 when baggage screeners allowed terrorists carrying box cutters to board planes, which they hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Airport officials in the Washington region also said any differences that occur Sunday involve contracts rather than anything visible to passengers.

"I don't expect any major changes," said Tara Hamilton, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority spokeswoman. "It's just another milestone."

Baltimore-Washington International Airport spokesman John White said the only thing he has been doing differently is telling a few people not to worry.

"The message is going to be things do not change noticeably for the passenger," Mr. White said.

TSA officials are putting together a priority list for the nation's airports. Washington-area airports are near the top of the list to receive bomb-detection equipment and a federalized security work force.

"You clearly have to put [Reagan] National as one that we would fill very quickly, as we would with Dulles," said TSA Director John Magaw.

Currently, flights in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport carry more air marshals than flights at other airports, he said.

The agency also is reviewing applications to appoint security managers for each airport, beginning with the 81 largest. So far, the TSA has received about 10,500 applications for the 81 jobs.

"We are confident it will be a first-class work force," Mr. Magaw said.

The airlines' ground-security coordinators are helping the new federal work force until the security directors are appointed and the transition completed.

Mr. Magaw said many issues remain unresolved, including determining budget requirements and meeting a year-end deadline for putting an adequate number of bomb-detection machines in all airports.

"They cannot manufacture these things fast enough," Mr. Magaw said about the machines, which cost $1 million apiece.

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