Air Safety on the Cheap

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

Under the unforgiving glare of public scrutiny, Argenbright Security continued to stumble. A month after the attacks, federal prosecutors told a judge that in the year since the Philadelphia convictions, Argenbright hadn't reformed at all. The company was still flouting regulations, hiring security personnel with disqualifying criminal records. And while Frank Argenbright and his company had claimed that the Philadelphia scandal was the result of a few bad apples in a local office, the new investigation showed the problem was far more widespread. Serious violations were found in Argenbright offices at Logan, LaGuardia, Cedar Rapids, Columbus, Dallas–Fort Worth, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, and Trenton.

Two months after September 11, Argenbright Security screeners at Chicago O'Hare let a man through the screening even though he was carrying a bagful of knives. In Texas, seven Argenbright employees were arrested for having entered the country illegally.

The company, freshly acquired by Securicor, went into damage-control mode. Securicor announced that Frank Argenbright was no longer affiliated with Argenbright Security and installed a new CEO, David Beaton, who immediately set out on a media junket to assure everyone that the company was turning over a new leaf.

Diana Eliazov

"The first thing is we need good, high-quality staff," Beaton said. "We started to raise the wages of those staff [from an] average of $6 to $8 to $9 to $13. That's already begun to have impact in terms of quality of the staff, and the retention rates, which have been a problem for this industry for many, many years."

But it was too little, too late. Faced with such a glaring demonstration of the failure of the private sector's minimum-wage approach to airport security, even staunch privatization advocates like DeLay couldn't mount a convincing case against federalizing airport security. In November 2001, responsibility for airport security was taken away from airlines and their contractors and handed to the newly created Transportation Security Administration.

Cut loose from the company he built from scratch and facing bankruptcy, Frank Argenbright was feeling sorry for himself, facing bankruptcy, and, by his own account, contemplating suicide.

It didn't last long. In 2002, he dusted himself off and started again. Argenbright sold his Atlanta mansion and his lake house, and rented out his Sea Island palace to tourists. Then he hit up his wealthy friends for $7 million in loans. With that money, he started two new security and airport-services companies. One of them was Air Serv.

The TSA had taken over primary responsibility for airport security, but Argenbright saw opportunities in other areas, from wheelchair-pushing services to cleaning plane cabins between flights. And though convincing new clients to overlook Argenbright's tarnished reputation wasn't always easy, Air Serv also began to pick up contracts for supplemental security work.

In 2006, the company lost $3 million. The next year, it broke even, and by the end of 2007, Argenbright was able to pay his friends back. The company has continued to grow. In 2009, it swallowed RAM Associates, a Texas-based airport-security company. The next year, Air Serv notified the Securities and Exchange Commission of a multimillion-dollar private offering.

With the success of Air Serv, Argenbright is back to doing what he does best: running airport security for airlines with poorly trained, poverty-wage employees. And with the success, his swagger has returned. Air Serv didn't respond to requests for comment for this story, but over the past decade, Argenbright has given a few interviews for sympathetic profiles. It's clear that he feels unfairly scapegoated over the September 11 attacks.

"There's a certain perception of a rich person: bad guy," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2007. "There's no sympathy if you're said to be worth $300 million."

There's certainly an argument to be made that Argenbright was made the poster boy for an entire industry run amok, driven to a race to the bottom by shrinking airline budgets.

But Argenbright doesn't actually seem to believe he did anything wrong.

He continues to claim the Philadelphia scandal was an aberration, and he still insists that paying minimum wage to the people entrusted with airport security was the right thing to do.

"We had the right, skilled people in the right slot with the right pay," he told Forbes in 2008.

In fact, Argenbright thinks the TSA has been going about airport security all wrong by failing to follow the strategy he pioneered with Air Serv.

"They're hiring the wrong model," Argenbright told Time in 2006. "After 9/11 people wanted white, West Point–looking cadets, and from a PR standpoint, that worked, but college-age or college grads are the worst screeners."

What you really wanted to see, Argenbright told Time, is poorly educated minority security officers because "they took the most pride in the job and because they became less bored or distracted with the repetition of watching X-ray screens or staffing metal detectors."

Prince Jackson hasn't stopped looking for other security jobs that might have better pay and benefits, but he's not waiting for that to come through. He's part of a campaign to organize Air Serv employees into a union that can negotiate better employment.

Last year, he worked with the Special and Superior Officers Benevolent Association, a small security-guard union, to organize the Air Serv employees at Delta's terminals 2 and 3 at JFK.

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