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    Airport security lacks staff

    TAMPA - At a time when the nation's airports need security the most, the companies that hire and train baggage screeners are having a tougher time than ever keeping people on the job.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 13, 2001


    TAMPA -- At a time when the nation's airports need security the most, the companies that hire and train baggage screeners are having a tougher time than ever keeping people on the job.

    As a result, security checkpoints often are understaffed, squeezing passengers into single or double lines that back up for 30 minutes or more, while additional metal detectors and X-ray equipment stand idle for lack of anyone to operate them.

    "Just when there's a requirement for more people, we're down, depending on the city, by 10 to 20 percent from staffing levels prior to Sept. 11," said Ron Harper, president of Globe Aviation Services of Irving, Texas, one of the nation's largest employers of airport security personnel. It is the largest security screening contractor at Tampa International Airport, handling Airsides A and F.

    "We can't find people; we can't keep people," Harper said.

    "For years they've been reading these horrible descriptions of themselves as underpaid and incompetent -- and that first part is true -- and they're tired of it," he said. "Now the pressure is much more intense, with the National Guard looking over their shoulders, searching nearly every bag, looking for smaller and smaller items that might be dangerous, and they just don't want to do it any more."

    The danger is that the ever-more-beleaguered screeners, challenged by ever-more-impatient travelers, will cut corners -- perhaps without even knowing it -- to move people along. Such lapses, industry officials say, could negate the more stringent security procedures enacted in the last month.

    And it is not an isolated problem.

    "It's everywhere," Harper said. "Across the board, every company in the business is dealing with the same issue."

    Baggage screeners were at the center of safety debates even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks focused a spotlight on aviation security. The screeners, often paid little more than minimum wage, are hired by companies, like Globe, that work under contract to the airlines. The companies can pay screeners only what their airline contracts allow.

    The screeners are plagued by repetition and boredom, which generate mistakes. Applicants often are retirees trying to supplement pensions or those without the skills to find better paying jobs. Turnover was always high. Now it is higher.

    Flight crew members coming through TIA on Friday said they encountered long lines at security checkpoints across the country, coupled with idle screening systems for which there were no operators.

    TIA officials say they have seen evidence of the worker shortage.

    "I was over at Airside F the other day, and they had one of the three security arches in operation, and it was very backed up," said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. "I asked US Airways (in charge of hiring security for Airside F) and I was told they were losing screeners faster than they could replace them. I heard the same thing from American (Airlines)."

    Brenda Geoghagan, spokeswoman for the authority, said she tried to go to an airside for lunch recently, "and the lines (at the metal detectors) were so long I gave up and went back to the terminal."

    "Only two of the three arches were open," Geoghagan said. "They really needed that third one to handle the crowd."

    The Federal Aviation Administration recently limited passengers to one carry-on and one personal item, such as a handbag or briefcase, in part to move the search process along. Results are spotty.

    "In some of our bigger cities, we have seen some very long lines at the security checkpoints because there just aren't enough people to do the job," said Christine Turnabe-Jones, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines.

    Harper, of Globe, said some airlines are providing more money to boost compensation for screeners in the hopes of getting well-qualified people who will stay longer, but with airlines struggling for survival themselves, how many more resources they can commit for how long is open to question.

    While the screeners are conducting more thorough checks at most airports now, there is little evidence their basic training has changed. They learn to operate X-ray equipment and machines that sniff out explosive traces. They learn what to look for when the metal detector beeps and how to request a hands-on luggage search without irritating the passenger.

    Until 1995, security screeners hired in Florida were subject to the same scrutiny as professional security agents and investigators. They had to pass background checks and obtain licenses. Now, they are only asked on their application forms if they have a criminal history, and security companies tend to assume they are telling the truth.

    Earlier this week, federal authorities accused the nation's largest airport security firm, Argenbright Holdings Ltd. of Atlanta, of continuing to hire felons as airport luggage screeners. The company was convicted of doing the same thing and paid $1.55-million in fines and restitution less than a year ago.

    The U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia accused Argenbright of handing out sensitive airport access passes at 13 U.S. airports without performing criminal background checks as required by its probation agreement.

    Argenbright officials say they have made good faith efforts to improve performance and contend there are a number of inaccuracies in the federal action but did not detail them. Argenbright handles security at Airside D at Tampa International Airport, though TIA was not among the airports mentioned in the federal action.

    Steve Goldman of Seminole is an example of the hiring challenges the security companies face.

    Goldman, a technology specialist in telecommunications and data transmission, recently lost his job to a sagging economy. Given his background, he thought security screening was something he was well qualified to do.

    "I called one of the companies, Globe, and said I understood they were hiring," Goldman said. "They said something like, "Oh, yeah, we have lots of openings.' Then they told me what the job paid, about $6.50 an hour, and I didn't even go in.

    "It befuddles me that they would pay so little for people who are so important to our safety and well-being."

    Harper said the system has to change.

    "The federal government has to take responsibility," he said. "Whether they use federal workers to do the screening or have the contractors working directly for the feds we don't know. But we do know we can't continue what we have."

    -- Information from Knight Ridder was used in this report.

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