Air Safety on the Cheap

They're responsible for airport security but contractors still make poverty wages

Air Safety on the Cheap
Photograph: Diana Eliazov
Prince Jackson is a security guard at JFK's Delta terminals, where his employer, Air Serv, pays him $8 an hour.

Prince Jackson's days usually go like this: He gets off work at 6:30 in the morning, gets on the bus, and is home by 7:30 a.m. This time of year, the sun is just rising over Ozone Park as he opens the front gate of the house where he lives and walks around to a back door that leads down to the basement.

Jackson goes down a flight to the room he rents from the family upstairs. The room is small—about seven feet by eight feet—just enough space for his mattress, a television, and a dresser. There aren't any windows. On the wall is a picture of Jackson's son, a college student he doesn't get to see very much. The family upstairs charges Jackson $125 a week for the room, but in the past year, he has fallen behind.

Jackson has something to eat and is asleep by 9 a.m. He'll wake up around 3 and prepare a dinner to take to work. Most of his meals come from the food pantry at his church, where he volunteers. After he makes dinner, Jackson will nap some more, or maybe watch TV. At 8 p.m., he'll get up, shower, and put on his uniform. By 9, he's on Sutphin Boulevard and waiting for the number 6 bus.

Diana Eliazov

An hour later, Jackson is at work, at Delta's two terminals at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where he's a security guard. Jackson makes sure no one enters the gate area without passing through the Transportation Security Administration screening checkpoints. He ensures no one unauthorized exits the access doors to the tarmac. He guards the employee entrance and makes sure only properly accredited staff come in. He responds to alarms. Charged with keeping the terminals safe, Jackson is an integral part of aviation security at JFK.

He makes $8 an hour, doesn't get sick days, and doesn't have health insurance.

Jackson works for Air Serv, a private company with 8,000 employees and contracts at more than 50 airports in the United States and abroad. Air Serv has its fingers in many parts of airport operations: Employees guard airport perimeters, screen baggage and passengers, push wheelchairs, and clean plane cabins. At many airports, including JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark, they're also part of the security mesh that protects the airports: TSA employees, who screen luggage and passengers, work for the government. The Port Authority's police and security contractors control access to the airport. But inside the terminals, most of the security is still handled by contractors hired by airlines, just as it was before 9/11.

Working at different companies throughout the city, Jackson has been a security guard for nine years. He lost his last job in 2009 after the economy tanked, but a city placement program connected him with Air Serv, which had just won the Delta contract at JFK.

"They needed 100 guards," Jackson recalls. "They hired me on the spot."

He wasn't thrilled about the wages—less than he'd made in other security jobs—but Jackson was desperate. He has been working the overnight shift ever since—except for a week last year when he got a severe stomach flu.

Jackson found a clinic in Astoria that would treat him for $15. "When I came back the next week, I brought a doctor's note, so they didn't fire me. But we don't get sick days, so I didn't get paid. That really put me in the hole. I'm still behind on my rent."

On its website, Air Serv describes itself as a people company. "To have satisfied customers, you must first have employees who feel valued and are recognized for exceptional job performance. . . . Once a year, 110% Club galas are held across the country to recognize those employees who play a huge role in our success."

Jackson isn't convinced. "We never heard anything about a 110 Club," he says. "The first time they mentioned that was when we started talking about a union."

Over the past decade, the United States spent $1.1 trillion on homeland security and transformed the landscape of airport security.

New agencies were created to ensure safe air travel; an army of federal employees was hired and trained; backscatter-imaging machines were purchased en masse so quickly that their health risks were never adequately evaluated; and travelers were conditioned to take off their shoes, dispose of liquids and gels, and participate in a stupefying array of other new rituals of security-as-theater.

But Prince Jackson and his co-workers at Air Serv and other airport security contractors inhabit a corner of airport security that has hardly changed in the past 10 years. Like their predecessors from an earlier era, they provide a last line of defense for the airlines by preventing unauthorized access to airplanes, runways, and vulnerable areas of the airport. Like their predecessors, Jackson and his colleagues work for companies competing for contracts from ever-tighter airline budgets in a cutthroat market where CEOs can make a fortune by paying their workers less than the other guy.

The result is that at the most security-conscious time in America's history, when more money than ever before is being spent on keeping airports and airplanes safe, the scene today at airport-terminal security doesn't look so different from what you find at any fast-food counter: low-skill, poorly trained workers making close to minimum wage who are ready to bolt for a better job as soon as they can find one that offers sick days or 25 cents more an hour.

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