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Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports on the passing of airport security from private companies to the federal government.
There was little evidence of change today or over the weekend at Denver International Airport. But, in fact, DIA and 428 other airports around the country saw the beginning of the most massive overhaul of aviation security in U.S. History. Yesterday, the government assumed contracts that the airlines held with private security companies. It was part of the federal government's takeover of airport screening from the private sector. The takeover reflects widespread frustration with the aviation security industry. Outside an airport terminal recently, a passenger blamed a screener for the September 11 attacks.
Every time I come here, I see the screener just standing here talking to somebody else.
No, no, no.
Why did this happen? This wouldn't have happened if the screeners were doing their job.
In fact, the hijackers carried nothing illegal on September 11. But security companies do have a history of well-publicized lapses– one of the reasons lawmakers voted to federalize their workforce. On the NewsHour in September, Congressman James Oberstar said a federal takeover would restore public confidence in air travel.
REP. JAMES OBERSTAR (D) Minnesota: Putting airport security screeners on the same level as our customs personnel, our Immigration and Naturalization Service, other law enforcement people– wearing a badge of the United States, sworn to uphold the law and the Constitution of the United States– will give travelers confidence that they have the best trained, best prepared, committed security workforce to assure safe air travel.
By mid-November, the government will have to hire, train, test, and deploy 40,000 airport screeners. Current screeners say they are underpaid and unappreciated.
I want to ask all these screeners, how many people here have recently caught a concealed weapon from going on a plane?
Screeners and their union representatives are campaigning to keep as many jobs as possible, particularly since salaries are expected to take a huge leap. Current screeners are essentially being laid off. To be part of the new federal workforce, they will have to reapply, be tested, and go through background checks. The government says experienced screeners will be given priority, but some 25% of current screeners will automatically be ineligible because the new law requires that all screeners be U.S. citizens. That requirement makes no sense to Jeimy Gebin. Despite her non-citizen status, she served for three years in the U.S. Army before becoming a screener at Los Angeles International Airport.
JEIMY GEBIN, Airport Screener:
We want to know why is it that we can go fight for this country, defend this country, and we can't come back home and have a job.
Gebin and other non-citizen screeners are suing the government. ACLU Lawyer Mark Rosenbaum says the citizenship requirement won't make airports safer.
MARK ROSENBAUM, American Civil Liberties Union:
In airports, thousands of employees with direct and unsupervised access to aircraft, to luggage, to passengers, even to airfields, have no requirement of citizenship.
Congressman John Mica, chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee, says when Congress wrote the law, citizenship for screeners seemed so essential, there was little debate over that requirement.
REP. JOHN MICA:
Maybe it's being overcautious, but this is the caution that members of Congress wanted to have as an additional requirement in the bill.
Screeners are not the only ones complaining. Their employers will lose contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, so the companies are also seeking legal recourse. Worldwide Security Associates provides screeners at ten U.S. airports, including Boston and Phoenix. Chief Executive Officer Michael Ferrua estimates the federal takeover will cost his company $20 million a year in lost revenue.
MICHAEL FERRUA, Worldwide Security Associates:
There should be some compensation due for that. We have not yet determined what that compensation amount should be or in what form it should be… it should come.
The lawyer for several of the airport security companies is Kenneth Quinn, former general counsel of the FAA and a partner in one of the world's largest law firms.
KENNETH QUINN, Aviation Security Association:
We are going to make a claim to the United States and seek compensation. As one of the chairmen of the board of one of the larger companies I represent said to me, "look, this isn't Russia. We don't just nationalize industries without paying for it."
Congressman Mica has little sympathy for the screener industry and their appeals for compensation.
The public and members of Congress come into contact with the screeners, and most of the attention was, fortunately or unfortunately, focused on that particular position. So, you win the business with the federal government, you lose business with the federal government, and that's the way the cookie crumbles.
Despite the need to quickly hire a new federal workforce, the selection of screeners has not yet started. Recently people laid off from various airport jobs after September 11 waited for an hour to get into a Los Angeles job fair. Recruiters passed out applications, but there was little information for would-be federal screeners.
Are you taking applications for the airport?
No, we're not. They have a Web site. Have you gone to the Web site?
John Magaw, the man tapped to head the new Transportation Security Administration, says he'll meet the hiring deadline but at recent Congressional hearings into the agency's progress said he expects the costs of security to be several billion dollars more than originally anticipated.
JOHN MAGAW, Transport Security Administration:
This would be a part of causing us to fall short, yes, sir.
And you anticipate falling short then?
I anticipate we'll fall short.
How much short are we going to be?
We hope in another 60 or 90 days, we'll have that.
Experts say that besides federalizing screeners and paying them better, their responsibilities also need to change for them to be effective. Darryl Jenkins heads the Aviation Institute at George Washington University.
DARRYL JENKINS, Aviation Institute:
Now if you look at the best cases– Israel, Germany, Great Britain, Singapore– the countries that do the best job, what they do is they screen people rather than baggage, and people that they pull out, their security people are very adept at interviewing them, and this is the thing that provides the security.
The interviews, all right. And you go talk to an Israeli or a German– it's the interview where they catch and trip up a lot of people. And we're not doing that.
The specifics of screener training are still being planned, but experts say that greater attention needs to be paid to other vulnerable areas at airports. Crowds in lobbies present targets to potential terrorists. 600,000 workers who provide ground services should have more than their criminal histories checked, says Cathal Flynn, former head of security for the FAA. Flynn is now a board member of Argenbright, the largest screening company.
CATHAL FLYNN, Former FAA Security Chief:
The really hard-core terrorists may not have criminal records. They maybe plotting mass murder, but they will not have criminal records. In other words, their fingerprint checks are going to turn up negative. So what has to be done is a much more thorough going search of the national intelligence and law enforcement, and through the FBI's investigations files, to determine the trustworthiness of people on the ramp.
SEN. RON WYDEN:
What else can you tell us about establishing security screening for ground services and how long it's going to take to establish these procedures?
We have established some fairly competent procedures right now, but for me to discuss those in an open forum will just alleviate what we've already done. And I can tell you this: That from the time– whether it's a truck or whether it's a person or whether it's a food product or whatever it is– enters that compound, it's checked two or three times before it gets on the plane.
As for the screeners, the new law requires more rigorous training. The government plans to begin training new federal screeners in May.
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