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.

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."

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14 comments
R Satrohan
R Satrohan

Airsevr should be called airslave i work for them driving on the jfk ramp / runway and i get payed $8 hr .. and also if we call off the day befor or after our day off we get written up or suspended and we have to work 1 year befor we can get Five day vacation with pay . this company is s**t . Im trying my best to get something better but its hard in this time of age ..

Seattle Airport Transportation
Seattle Airport Transportation

Thank you for this weblog. That's all I can say. You most definitely have created this weblog into something thats eye starting and essential.

Security Guards Houston
Security Guards Houston

'Thank you for this blog. That's all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something thats eye opening and important. You clearly know so much about the subject, youve covered so many bases. Great stuff from this part of the internet. Again, thank you for this blog."

NYPD
NYPD

This is a great article and shows what the american workplace has become. Prior to the 1990's, a person convicted of a crime could still get a good paying job at a factory and therefore support a family. Today, we are a nation of wage slaves. Companies hire convicts because they work for virtually nothing, get no health care, and wont complain. When the blue collar jobs left the county, the white collar office workers did nothing to help. Now the white collar jobs are gone and the white collar jobless are now screaming bloody murder.

Corporations have taken over the planet. The richest man in New York is the Mayor. I am a New York City Police Officer and I have watched Mike Bloomberg bring the Enron culture to New York City government. Like the security guard in this article, NYPD officers were hired, including myself, at an annual salary of $25,100.00. The whole point of paying a police officer a good salary is so he or she will not take bribes or compromise his authority. Bloomberg did to the NYPD what the private security scam company in this article did to its own employees and the flying public at large. So it does not surprise me that we have security guards that are convicted criminals in the airports or police officers with shady backgrounds. This is done so that the wealthiest one percent like Bloomberg and the owners of these private security companies can rip off the taxpayers with their arguments of the "benefits" of privatization. Since Bloomberg has taken office and emasculated the NYPD salary structure, the NYPD has hired many police officers with misdemeanor convictions, felony arrest histories, or other contacts with the criminal justice system.

This article is part of the legacy of President Ronald Reagan firing the air traffic controllers that went on strike in 1981. One that day the signal went out to all the corporations and state and local governments that they could abuse their employees and get away with it.

I am a very bitter Police Officer. I put my life on the line for a low salary. I blame Mayor Bloomberg for this. But I also blame the public for this. The voters allow all of these scumbags like Bloomberg, Bush, Obama, and Cheney to be elected. Everyone in this City and the country is so selfish. People dont want to read or get informed or do what's right. People want to sit in front of their widescreen TV and watch that ape David Hasslehoff jog on the beach with a couple of blondes with fake breasts jiggling.

Well all I can do is try to do the right thing. The NYPD has become Enron. I write summons for minor infractions just so some boss can have a number and look good at a Compstat meeting at Police Headquarters. Enron was a pyramid scam, so is the NYPD. The only thing Bloomberg cares about is Manhattan's image. He doesnt want these insane homeless people terrorizing the tourists in times square, but you know what the homeless are coming back with a vengence. There are only so many homeless people a cop can arrest for disorderly conduct, before the homeless guy or the cop says enough is enough.

Anyway, I am one of the first wave of Police Officers who were hired at the $25,100 starting salary to pass the Sergeants Exam. My salary and responsibility increases. But you know what, I am not doing anything for anyone because I got screwed over all those years making $25,000, $31,000, or $50,000. So when I get promoted and make $100,000, I am going to remember how is was when I was being paid like a slave when the selfish person calls 911 for help, I will presume this selfish person allowed Bloomberg, Bush and Obama to get elected and pay me a slave wage.

Remember, the selfish airline customer who bought a cheap ticket and a huge widescreen TV, shouldn't be asking himself, "Gee why did this airline employee steal my luggage?"

VivlianWozz
VivlianWozz

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Christine_Whittemore_28
Christine_Whittemore_28

..Тhis is сrаzу...Мy friеnd`s sistеr mакеs 78/hr оn thе intеrnеt. Shе hаs bееn unеmрlоуеd fоr 11 mоnths but lаst mоnth hеr incоmе wаs 7985$ јust wоrкing оn thе РС fоr а fеw hоurs. Read about it here ....... C a s h M a n y . c о m

Christine_Whittemore_28
Christine_Whittemore_28

aefsghvnbm,This is crazy....my best friend's mom makes $88 an hour on the computer. She has been out of job for 10 months but last month her check was $5483 just working on the computer for a few hours...Read about it here.... WantJob.com .....

Christine_Whittemore_28
Christine_Whittemore_28

..Тhis is сrаzу...Мy friеnd`s sistеr mакеs 78/hr оn thе intеrnеt. Shе hаs bееn unеmрlоуеd fоr 11 mоnths but lаst mоnth hеr incоmе wаs 7985$ јust wоrкing оn thе РС fоr а fеw hоurs. Read about it here .......http://alturl.com/kaqea

hermadite
hermadite

It is reprehensible for loyal workers like jackson to receive a minimum wage for the job he is doing to protect travelers. Perhaps the pilots' union will offer them minimum wages to fly the planes. But don't hold your breath!

Txstatejesse
Txstatejesse

Mr. Jackson,I've worked for JetBlue at JFK for about 6mos now. I have seen our company hire allot of people while other airlines are struggling. Our business model is considerably different than other airlines which allows us to grow even in a tough economy. Please try and visit JetBlue's Work Here site ( https://workhere.jetblue.com/s... )

If you're looking for a job where your career, your passion, and your sense of fun are all important then you've landed at the right place. At JetBlue we've built an award-winning brand based on delivering value, service, style and comfort to our customers — and to our crewmembers. And, by hiring people who share our vision, we've created a place where people enjoy coming to work.

From our great company culture to our excellent benefits

More culture - our values aren't just words on a plaque, we live by themMore benefits - for now and the futureMore traveling - flight benefits for you and your loved onesMore diversity - we're a mix of many nationalities and walks of lifeMore style - we like to make a statement with our innovative product, state-of-the-art facilities and fashionable uniformsMore to brag about - ranked "Highest in Customer Satisfaction Among Low-Cost Carriers in North America" by J.D. Power and Associates for five years in a rowPlease note: JetBlue Airways accepts applications and other documents regarding employment solely through our website. At JetBlue Airways, we respect your privacy. The information you provide to us through this website shall be handled in accordance with our privacy policy. Please see our Data Privacy Statement.

Burlock1958
Burlock1958

i just started a part time position with a major airline .. I m being paid $ 8.00 /hr also, even though I am responsible for security, luggage and cleaning of planes.. in the community I live in , even if I worked 40 hrs a week, and ALL of my income went to paying for rent, I would not be able to afford a 2 bedroom apt.. the greed of corporations who are paying poverty wages to workers has to stop..

Mikoe Wozz
Mikoe Wozz

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Cassidy
Cassidy

Hear, hear.

Too bad most people in the security services, military and paramilitary, are just plain dumb or way too cynical. But it's all very understandable, as you detail here.

In a democracy, you get the country you vote for. I DON'T BOTHER VOTING BECAUSE IT DOES NOT MATTER, HOWEVER. It does not matter because what is one vote compared to the millions of morons out there who believe the earth was created in seven literal days, or who think that naked capitalism is best??

 
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