New Federal Watchdog is Taking Over Security at US Airports

The new security umbrella that is unfurling over US airports is under the direct control of the federal government which has taken back aviation security from private companies following revelations of rampant violations and mismanagement during investigations into the September 11 attacks.

The nation’s first fully federalised team of security screeners began taking over screening at airports on April 30. Officials promise they are better trained, better motivated and kinder – complaints of racial profiling and harassment have swelled in the tense security climate at airports — than those employed by private contractors who under-paid and exploited their workers while reaping huge profits. Previously private airlines and airport operators were responsible for safety, resulting in a tangled system in which industry kept down costs of complying with federal rules while government regulators, sympathetic to industry’s problems, did not always insist on levels of security adopted in some countries.

An estimated 30,000 airport staff, employees of the newly created Transportation Security Administration, will take over the 429 airports around the United States by November 18, the deadline set by Congress for the government to perform almost all airport security duties. The Transportation Department and the Office of Management and Budget have asked for $4.4 billion for airport security in the supplemental appropriations bill. A decision is to be taken later in May.

Officials expect about 40 percent of the federal screeners to be new hires; the rest will be retrained former employees of the contractors that the airlines have used for decades.

Selected candidates will be put through a 40-hour training course at a training center in Oaklahoma City followed by 60 hours on-the-job training and then rotated through several airports around the nation before returning to airports in their home cities, as supervisors Because of that professionalism, travellers will “be and feel safe and secure,” federal officials said.

This sharply contrasts with the previous situation where airport security was farmed out to the lowest bidder who even resorted to hiring illegal workers, forcing 10-hour shifts and withholding welfare benefits. Federal prosecutors have arrested 356 people working at airports since September 11 on charges of supplying false information to obtain security badges or jobs. The arrested employees were working as screeners, janitors, food service workers, baggage handlers, construction workers and aircraft fuelers, among other jobs. The government said last month that it has decided to eliminate from the airports within two weeks one of the biggest security agencies, Argenbright Security Inc., because of a long record of problems that have come to light in the past few months, including employing felons.

Pay for the federal screeners begin at $22,500 and rises to $40,000 or a bit more, depending on experience and cost of living where the screener will work. In some cases that is not much more than contractor employees are paid now, although it is higher than what they got before September 11. Further, the new jobs are attractive for in addition to pay there are health benefits, job security and the opportunity for advancement. Heavy turnover, sometimes more than 100 percent in the course of a year, has been blamed by experts for the low competency levels among airport security staff hired by private contractors.

An article in the New York Times (Nov 22, 2001) profiled a typical, unnamed airport screener. She was 19 years old, still living with her mother, and paid $9.24 for her job at Los Angeles International Airport, one of only few airports in the country with unionised airport personnel. Her days, which began at 2.30 p.m. and ended at 11.00 p.m., were filled with frustrations. She described a work environment where employees feuded with their supervisors, rules were enforced strictly when inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration were present, and confusion about basic procedures – such as when a passenger should be asked to remove a belt or jewelry – was common.

Many of these workers may be rehired as better-compensated and trained federal employees. However, many others, especially immigrants without US citizenship stand automatically disqualified under the Airport Security Industry Support Bill approved by Congress. The New York Times commented in an editorial on April 1 (“Improving Aviation Security”) that while public confidence in the nation’s aviation system is now rebounding, federal authorities have a staggering amount of work to consolidate control over airport security.

[Source: New York Times, American Prospect, World Socialist Web Site]