An Airport Screener's Complaint

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When Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced plans Sunday to replace private airport screeners who check passenger IDs with federal workers, an expansion of the government screener takeover after 9/11 that created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Frank Argenbright, Jr., saw his livelihood threatened — yet again.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Argenbright was CEO of the world's largest private airport security screening firm, the 20-year-old, Atlanta-based Argenbright Security, which had 25,000 employees screening passengers at 44 domestic and 28 European airports. That business vanished soon thereafter when the Transportation Security Administration was created. Argenbright started his new company, AirServ, in 2002, contracting with airlines to provide workers who check passenger IDs at checkpoints, along with services such as ticket processing, bus transportation and cargo handling. And now that his business once again could be supplanted by the federal government, the airline security entrepreneur is not shy about expressing his ongoing frustration.

As the head of the company whose screeners worked at two of the three airports targeted on Sept. 11 — Newark and Washington's Dulles — Argenbright quickly became a scapegoat in the aftermath of the terror attacks. On Oct. 12, 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly announced that parent company "Argenbright Holdings continues to violate laws that protect the safety of Americans who travel by commercial airlines." Ashcroft based his comments on a 1999 guilty plea and agreement Argenbright had made with the federal government when a screener at a Pennsylvania airport was busted for drug possession, which led to evidence that other screeners had faulty immigration paperwork, lax training and even faked test scores. The manager of that region was fired and later jailed.

"I was personally and professionally devastated," says Argenbright, whose experience will be chronicled as part of a critical book about airline safety due out this fall, Unsafe At Any Altitude.

Why? "They're hiring the wrong model," he says of today's screeners. Few of them are African-American or immigrants, Argenbright says. "After 9/11 people wanted white, West Point-looking cadets, and from a PR standpoint that worked, but college-age or college grads are the worst screeners."

Argenbright points to a study he commissioned by researchers at Georgia Tech University that found that non-college-educated minorities were the best screeners, both because they took the most pride in the job and because they became less bored or distracted with the repetition of watching x-ray screens or staffing metal detectors.

Whether or not he's right, ongoing studies by the Government Accountability Office in 2005 and this spring, along with an internal 2005 Homeland study of screeners, back up Argenbright's overall assesment of screeners' performance, noting that in one instance planted weapons got past screeners in all 21 airports tested. The reports also state screeners are not getting all of the TSA-mandated training and often have criminal backgrounds, and that starting salaries of $24,000 fail to retain employees.

Yolanda Clark of the TSA calls Argenbright's theory "interesting. But there are all sorts of theories," she says. "This agency was set up after 9/11 to serve our country. I don't think there's much more to say than that."

Clark added that the agency could not supply the demographic makeup of some 43,000 TSA screeners on duty today. The reason to replace ID checkers would be "using human technology, if you will," says Clark, "to search for behavioral stress levels." New TSA ID screeners, she says, would receive psychological training on how to question passengers, akin to how Israel's El Al airline operates. (Chertoff also said this week that current TSA screeners will receive 38 hours of training in the detection of "detonators and modern types of explosives.")

Argenbright says that' s not enough either. "Employees coming to and from work who can get inside the planes should be screened every time. They don't do that," he says. The TSA confirms that its own workers are not routinely tested as passengers are.

R. William Johnstone, a staff member of the 9/11 Commission and author of the 2006 book 9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security, says that since 9/11 "the privatized security and the federal screeners have performed as well as or as badly as the other. To Mr. Argenbright's point, 9/11 was a systemic flaw bigger than the failure of some screeners. Part of federalizing was to reassure the public that security was better. It was worth it for the public to know a major break had been made from the past."

That's cold comfort for Argenbright, who argues that a mix of better technology, the right type of screeners and increased profiling, both behavioral and racial, is needed. Meantime, he'll wait out any new federalizing of his screeners that may come.

"Political correctness of any sort is not how to go about airport security, on passengers or screeners, and I think people can accept that if it means being safer."