Air Safety on the Cheap


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.

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.

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.”

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.

“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.

Arguing that Jackson and his co-workers can’t form a local union, Air Serv fought the effort. If they want to organize, the company said, they’d need to make their case to 700 Air Serv security guards at seven airports across the country. In May, the dispute went to the National Mediation Board, which ruled for Air Serv.

The ruling put an end to SSOBA’s efforts, but now a bigger union is looking into the issue: The Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ is a massive and powerful union that has grown significantly in the past decade, in large part by organizing security workers.

Ten years ago, 32BJ represented about a thousand security guards, mostly bundled in with other commercial- and residential-worker contracts. After September 11, as demand for security services ballooned and the industry grew, 32BJ began aggressively organizing guards all over New York City and now represents 10,000 guards here alone.

From early on, the union’s strategy has been to marry demands for better pay and benefits to a call for better training and higher professional industry standards. In every campaign, the workers’ demands are presented as not just a wage grab, but as a way to improve security standards to benefit everyone. It has been a successful tactic.

At Air Serv, the tactic might be especially effective—partly because of Argenbright’s shady history, but also because unions have already made inroads in other corners of security at local airports. TSA screeners are unionized. So is the Port Authority Police. And in the past two years, 32BJ successfully unionized security contractors working for FJC, a Long Island security company that provides perimeter, cargo, and vehicle security at New York’s three major airports. 32BJ instituted a new 40-hour training program for FJC employees, but also nearly doubled their wages. FJC airport-security officers now start at more than $16 an hour.

Rob Hill, the organizing director for the union, says the difference in training standards and pay can be a point of leverage.

“You have people going to the airport, where the peripheral security that the Port Authority controls are at one standard,” Hill says. But once inside the terminal, “it’s still low-bid, whatever contractor will do it the cheapest and therefore pay their workers the least with the least benefits. I don’t know if the public knows that for the officers, it’s still a poverty job at the airport, where you’d think security would be the highest priority.”

32BJ is still in the early phases of planning a campaign, but if it does get involved, it will work for better training and pay for airline contractors across the metro area.

“You can’t make change working on one contractor at a time, because the airlines just change contractors,” Hill says. “You need to get everyone to agree to a new standard, so all the contractors are competing on an even field.”

Still in its early stages, the union’s campaign could take months or years to bear fruit. If it’s successful, Prince Jackson’s wages could double. Jackson says that would be great, but even a bump up to $10 an hour would make a huge difference in his life.

“I could almost pay my rent with that,” Jackson says. “Have a couple dollars left over even—not for me to save, but I could send my son $20 a week, take a little bit of the burden off of his mother.”