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Critics see weak link in airport security

Criminal background checks are no longer required for security checkpoint screeners.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2000


Every time Art Varnadore approaches an airport security checkpoint, he cringes.

Varnadore watches bags go through X-ray equipment, sees security screeners wield wands over passengers who set off the metal detectors, and wonders what these people are missing, what hidden dangers are getting through, perhaps to the airliner he is about to board.

"To me, I'm sorry, but we don't know enough about these people, and that's scary," said Varnadore, chief of the Florida Bureau of License Enforcement.

In terms of training and supervision, there is wide agreement that the people who serve as the last line of defense against criminal violence and air piracy generally do not always perform up to standards public safety requires. All of the nation's major airports have suffered security breaches in recent years, including Tampa International.

But even as the FAA moves to improve the performance of screeners, there is no guarantee they will ever again operate under the level of scrutiny that existed until 1995 in states such as Florida, where screeners had to pass background checks, obtain licenses and receive the same training as professional security agents and investigators. According to Varnadore, whose department ran the licensing program, Florida's background checks included criminal screenings by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI.

"Now, a prospective screener is (merely) asked on the application form if he has a criminal history," Varnadore said. "The security companies rely on the screeners to tell the truth, and if they answer no to that question, that's it, that's as far as it goes. And to me, that's frightening."

Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, said he was surprised at the perfunctory nature of background checks on screener applicants, who appear to get less scrutiny than virtually anyone else who works at the airport, except perhaps the person who sells magazines.

"Anybody hired by Tampa International Airport who is issued a security badge has to have a background check, and the airlines have to certify to us they have done background checks on all their employees who wear security badges," Miller said.

"At minimum, it is a five-year employment history. When we're hiring a police officer, we do the full criminal investigation as well, and we're considering doing it on all employees."

But licensing and background checks for security screeners ended in 1995 when a federal judge in Louisiana handed down a little-noticed decision that took regulations for screener training and oversight out of the hands of the states entirely.

The Huntleigh Corp., a security firm, sued to be exempted from the regulations of the Louisiana State Board of Private Security Examiners regarding the training and licensing of airport screeners.

John V. Parker, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the middle district of Louisiana, noted that the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act specifically gave responsibility for airport screeners to the airlines and forbade the states from making "any law, rule, regulation, standard or other provision having the force and effect of law relating to the rates, routes or services of any air carrier . . ."

Louisiana's licensing requirements were pre-empted by federal law, Parker wrote, ending state regulation of screeners everywhere in the country.

"There has to be a definitive, national regulatory scheme regarding the training and supervision of these people, and we've never had that, not even when the states were doing the regulating, because standards varied from state to state," said Louis Gurvich, a New Orleans lawyer who serves as legal adviser to the National Association of Security and Investigative Regulators.

"You certainly haven't had a national regulatory scheme since 1995," Gurvich added. "Whether the FAA's new proposals will provide it, and whether they will provide enough, is what we're waiting to find out."

Current FAA regulations require airlines to provide protections against people carrying weapons, explosives or other destructive substances aboard aircraft or checking anything dangerous in baggage or cargo. The rules provide basic standards for screeners and their equipment.

Typically, the airlines hire security firms to put programs in place that strike a balance between public safety and customer convenience.

That would still be the case under tougher standards the FAA is poised to enact later this year.

They would require certification of all security firms hiring airport screeners, require FAA approval of training programs, create higher standards of training and expertise for supervisors and require a new X-ray system that periodically tests screener acuity by projecting images of weapons and other banned material into bags passing through security.

Security firms whose screeners don't perform to FAA standards could lose their certification.

But the FAA will not attempt, as many states did, to certify individual screeners, saying it doesn't have statutory authority. And the agency will not adopt a system of criminal background checks.

"The new rule has been proposed," said Kathleen Bergen, FAA spokeswoman for the southern region, which includes Florida. "More rigorous standards for companies would lead to better performances. Beyond that, it is our policy not to comment during the public comment period."

Depending on who is doing the reporting, airport security screeners have a turnover rate of 100 percent to 200 percent a year. Industry officials think more extensive training will lead to better pay and benefits and significantly trim the turnover ratio. The current national average wage for an airport screener is $5.75 an hour, and most do not receive benefits.

Detroit could be one of the first places in the country to determine whether reforming the system works. Last March, Northwest Airlines replaced Argenbright Security at Detroit Metropolitan Airport with Huntleigh/ICTS, ironically, the same company that brought the Louisiana lawsuit. Crain's Detroit Business reported that the change occurred after seven breaches of Argenbright's security.

Huntleigh raised wages and introduced fully paid medical insurance.

"Northwest has stepped up to the plate and improved and enhanced security with the use of the new firm," Wayne County Airport director Dave Katz told the Detroit News.

Argenbright is one of two security companies that supply screeners for Tampa International Airport.

Airport security improvements date to airline skyjackings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lately, the focus has been on anti-terrorism.

Since 1985, according to the FAA, at least 10 major international terrorist incidents have been directed at aviation targets, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988. While all the incidents occurred overseas, a link was found between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a plot to bomb several U.S. airliners in the Far East.

"These incidents have demonstrated the capabilities and intentions of international terrorists to attack the United States and its citizens as well as the ability of such terrorists to operate in the United States," the FAA said in recounting the history of airport security. "The threat posed by foreign terrorists in the United States remains a serious concern, and the FAA believes that the threat will continue for the foreseeable future."

"Without that criminal history (on screeners), you truly do not know what you have," said Varnadore, the license bureau chief. "I try not to think about that as I board a plane."

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