Thursday, February 07, 2002

Airport screener won't be retained

Federal agency to take over

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The government won't sign any new contracts with the company that supplies most of the passenger screening at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport as the government federalizes airport security.

        But that doesn't mean that troubled Argenbright Security will be shown the door locally on Feb. 17, the legal deadline for the government to begin oversight of passenger screening.

        Officials for the Atlanta-based company Wednesday said that Argenbright will continue to honor its contracts with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to supply passenger screening and other services locally.

        That will continue until enough federal screeners are hired to take over, a process that has yet to begin at the airport and could last into the summer.

        Argenbright employs about 100 locally and about 19,000 nationwide.

        The newly created Transportation Security Administration is supposed to begin providing oversight at each airport checkpoint on Feb. 17, although Cincinnati airport officials said they haven't been informed of how that will happen.

        “It's too early to tell, but we will have someone there,” said Transportation Department spokesman Lenny Alcivar.

        A new airport security law calls for the new agency to take over all aspects of security by November, when the nation's approximately 30,000 screeners are to be federal employees.

        This week, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said that because of previous problems with Argenbright, the security company would not directly hire the company to handle screening during the transition.

        Existing contracts between the airlines and the security firm would stay in place during the transition, Mr. Alcivar said.

        One of the first airports scheduled to have federal workers replace private company employees is Baltimore, which is being used as a sort of laboratory by transportation officials trying to comply with the new law.

        Mr. Alcivar said that at airports such as Cincinnati, where Argenbright had a strong presence or was the sole provider of passenger screeners, “our goal is to have a federal presence as soon as possible, and they would receive preferential treatment when it came to staffing them entirely with federal workers.”

        St. Louis-based Huntleigh USA also provides security at the airport's lesser-used Terminal 1. Officials from that company did not return calls seeking comment.

        Argenbright chief executive officer David J. Beaton said the decision to exclude Argenbright from future direct contracts was “neither a surprise nor a significant impact to our company.”

        Mr. Beaton's company is the nation's third largest security firm and the leading contractor for aviation security and services. The company supplies passenger screening at 35 airports nationwide, and works at 17 of the nation's 20 biggest facilities.

        It was the firm in charge of passenger screening at Newark and Washington-Dulles — two of the airports from which planes involved in the Sept. 11 attacks departed.

        But Argenbright had problems before the terrorist attacks. In October 2000, the company pleaded guilty to two counts of making false statements to the Federal Aviation Administration and was fined the maximum amount — $1 million.

        The company had already been fined $1.2 million by the FAA in April 2000, for saying it had checked the backgrounds of new hires when it hadn't. Some employees were later found to have been convicted of felonies.

        At the local airport, Argenbright provides personnel and equipment to screen passengers as well as other services such as shuttle buses, skycaps and wheelchairs — taking over these services in June and July 2000.


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