Air Safety on the Cheap

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

So far, airlines and contractors have resisted calls to change this picture. But with New York's biggest security-guard union gearing up for war, that might be about to change.

Air Serv was founded in 2002 by Frank Argenbright, a Georgia businessman with a long career in the security field. In 1978, he started Argenbright Security, which contracted with employers to perform polygraph tests on possible hires. Soon, the company was diversifying, running shuttle buses for airline employees, guarding parking lots, and eventually taking over security responsibilities at several airports.

By the mid 1980s, Argenbright Security had annual sales of $40 million. But in 1988, amid a growing consensus that polygraph tests are unreliable and invasive, Congress made lie-detector tests for employment illegal. Argenbright redoubled his expansion into airport services and security work. Retaining 51 percent of the shares, he took his holding company public in 1997. Two years later, annual revenues were at $980 million. It was a good time to be at the top of the airport-security giant, which at this point employed 40 percent of the airport-security screeners in the United States.

Diana Eliazov

Flush with profits and tired of being answerable to investors, in 2000, Argenbright tried to buy back the security portion of the company for $140 million. He was outbid by a British company, Securicor, which paid $185 million and kept Argenbright on as temporary CEO.

But if things looked pretty rosy from the top, there were indications at ground level that things were amiss at Argenbright. Security guards were making minimum wage, and Argenbright was reaping the predictable consequences of paying dirt wages. The turnover rate was staggering, hitting 300 percent annually as employees jumped ship at the first glimmer of a better opportunity.

Dredging the bottom layer of the labor market, Argenbright was also getting a lot of applications from convicted felons. But as a federal investigation made clear, if you were willing to work for minimum wage, the company was prepared to look the other way and put you in a security uniform in an international airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration investigation, conducted at Philadelphia Airport, revealed a corporate culture that cut corners at every opportunity. Over four years starting in 1995, the Philadelphia office hired some 1,300 security guards. Managers altered applicants' paperwork, so they wouldn't have to run background checks on them. They faked GED certificates for applicants who had never finished high school. Required by law to give new hires 12 hours of training, managers instead showed recruits a 45-minute video, then gave them the answers to the FAA skills test. In the process, Argenbright hired screeners with convictions for illegal firearms possession, aggravated robbery, and drug possession. The company's Philadelphia operation also fraudulently overcharged airlines for their services, managers admitted to investigators, "to improve the office's profit margin."

On October 20, 2000, the case was resolved: Managers would do jail time. Argenbright's holding company pleaded guilty to lying to the FAA, and agreed to pay $1.55 million in fines and to a three-year probationary period.

If the Philadelphia investigation was a warning for Argenbright Security to change its ways, it went unheeded. A year later, the consequences of running airport security like a third-tier fast-food franchise would become devastatingly clear.

Such was the state of airport security on September 11, 2001, that we don't even have video footage of the terrorists clearing security and boarding their planes at Logan and Newark airports that day. The video from Washington Dulles International Airport shows hijackers on their way to board American Airlines Flight 77, which they smashed into the Pentagon a few hours later.

Through the camera's fish-eye view, we can watch Majed Moqed and Khalid al-Mihdhar approach the airport's west checkpoint, staffed by employees of Argenbright Security. Both men set off the metal detector as they pass through. Al-Mihdhar passes through a second detector without setting it off and is waved through, but Moqed sets off the second sensor as well. The screener gives him a cursory swipe with his wand, and he's passed through. Nine minutes later, more hijackers come through the checkpoint. Nawaf al-Hazmi also sets off one metal detector, then another. Again, he's wanded and waved through.

A few hours later, the men took over Flight 77 and flew it straight into the Pentagon, killing 184 people. Hijackers at Logan Airport in Boston also passed through Argenbright screenings before boarding two Boeing 767s, overtaking them, and flying them into the World Trade Center, killing 2,754 people.

Frank Argenbright and his defenders have insisted that the company didn't actually do anything wrong on September 11. If the hijackings were indeed carried out with box cutters and small knives, the screeners would have let them through even if they'd found them, because under the rules of the day, such implements were allowed on planes. But in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as officials and the media sought to understand just how airport security could have failed so catastrophically, Argenbright Security was put under the spotlight and subjected to withering criticism. The 9/11 Commission, reviewing the videotape of the cursory screening at Dulles, called it "marginal at best."

Tom DeLay, then the House Majority Whip, complained of the company's "epic incompetence" and noted that "Argenbright has become synonymous with failure."

« Previous Page
Next Page »