Saturday, February 16, 2002

Passenger screeners to become federal

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HEBRON — A major shift in airline and airport security begins nationwide and locally Sunday, although passengers flying in and out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport probably won't notice a difference initially.

        In fact, passengers might not notice it even over the long run, except for paying a new security fee of up to $10 more per ticket.

        The private companies that currently run passenger screening at the local airport (but are going to eventually be replaced) say they are encouraging their qualified employees to apply for new federal slots, which pay a lot more but have tougher requirements.

    Number of airport screeners needed: More than 30,000 nationally and at least 150 locally.
    Number currently employed by private companies: Less than 20,000
    Top pay: $36,000 annually (estimated)
    Deadline for full federal deployment nationally: Nov. 19
Initial federal screener requirements:
    U.S. citizens only.
    Must read, write and speak English.
    Pass a written test.
    Undergo a background check, including a check of any possible criminal history.
    Have a high school diploma or at least one year relevant experience as a screener.
    Be able to distinguish colors and be physically able to conduct hand searches.
Once hired, screeners must:
Undergo 40 hours of classroom training and an additional 60 hours of on-the-job training.
    Pass another on-the-job training exam at the end of the training period.
    Undergo an annual test of skills and periodic reviews of performance.
Other points:
Federal screeners are prohibited from going on strike.
    Transportation officials have yet to decide whether to allow federal screeners to unionize.
Sources: Individual private security firms, the federal Department of Transportation and the Transportation Security Agency.
        Even government officials overseeing the process of federalizing passenger screeners say they are hoping to lure the best of the existing workers to apply, not only to keep morale up during the transition but also to get experienced workers for a profession that has been put in the national spotlight since the Sept. 11 attacks. About 150 of the screeners work at the local airport.

        That effort extends from paying bonuses to security firms to pass on to workers to keep morale up during the transition to possibly assisting aliens who are working as screeners in gaining U.S. citizenship.

        “We've tried to send the message to those screeners is that those who have performed well, and are continuing to perform well in the current transition, well, we have more jobs here than have people to fill them,” said John Magaw, head of the newly created Transportation Security Administration, the agency that will take control of the screening system at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

Demand for federal screeners

        The security agency will need at least 30,000 full-time federal screeners to cover the nation's 429 airports with commercial service, federal transportation officials have said.

        Those screeners must be hired and in place by Nov. 19, one year to the day when the new aviation security law was enacted — that same law created the security agency and gave it oversight over passenger and baggage screening.

        The legislation also lays out requirements for the screeners that include U.S. citizenship, a high school diploma or at least one year's experience as a screener, and the ability to pass a test before being hired and after training, which consists of 40 hours of classroom time and 60 hours on-the-job.

        Initial pay rates have yet to be set, but transportation officials have said a senior screener could make as much as $36,000 annually. The screeners now will have a defined career path including promotions and moving around the country, unlike current screeners, who make minimum wage or slightly above with little hope of job advancement.

        Companies that have handled passenger screening on behalf of the nation's airlines have fewer than 20,000 screeners in place, industry officials estimate. The two companies that handle screening at the local airport are Atlanta-based Argenbright Security and Huntleigh USA of St. Louis.

        The fact that many current screeners could be in the same position as federal employees doesn't concern Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, an airline passenger advocacy group.

        “What I couldn't live with is a non-U.S. citizen from Yemen without a high school diploma getting fast-tracked for citizenship ... we're talking about national security here,” Mr. Mitchell said.

        “But you're going to get some qualified applicants because people will understand that security is a rising industry. And if you give someone something to work for and rewards, they're going to be better employees.”

Keeping current screeners

        Officials from both Huntleigh, which contracts with Northwest Airlines to handle screening in Terminal 1 locally, and Argenbright — Terminals 2 and 3 through contracts with United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, respectively — say they are actively working to help employees wishing to stay in the field.

        “We have encouraged our screeners to stay on the job, and they should have the first opportunity to get their foot in the door with the government,” said Huntleigh spokeswoman Jessica Neal.

        Argenbright is in a slightly different position, since transportation officials have stated that they won't sign any contracts with the company to handle screening during the transition period. Those officials cited previous fines and problems with Argenbright over the last few years in that decision.

        However, Argenbright will stay in place for at least 30 days here and at other airports until federal workers are hired or the security agency contracts with another security firm for interim services.

        But Mr. Magaw said that working for Argenbright won't preclude someone from being considered for a federal position.

        “The employees aren't going to be out of a job, their companies are, and there may be some very good employees out there,” Mr. Magaw said. “Those who meet the requirements will all be screened and given an opportunity to apply.”

        Argenbright spokeswoman Cynthia Faulkner said the company is ready to assist workers who wish to apply for federal jobs. “If I'm a screener for anybody, I'm thinking there's a big opportunity here,” Ms. Faulkner said.

        For those who might not qualify for one reason or other, Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson said that individual security companies could be given incentive and closing bonuses to help offset the revenue they are losing by having the government take over the process.

        “And it is our intent to make sure some of those funds trickle down to the screeners on the line,” said Mr. Jackson, who Thursday described the contract negotiation process as ongoing. “We want to be as humane as possible, and we want to keep people working toward the goal of tight security.”

Looking at citizenship

        Mr. Magaw also said that his agency could look into how far along a particular screener's citizenship application might be in the case of non-citizens.

        “We want to get the best people we can,” Mr. Magaw said. “If that means taking a look at the status of a citizenship application, without violating any (Immigration and Naturalization Service) rules .. we're looking at all the things we can do.”

        That suits Mr. Mitchell, who said the current attitude about screeners needs to change.

        “We look at them as the first line of defense, when really, they are the last line of defense,” he said. “They are literally the last hope of catching someone before they get on a plane if intelligence and the people at the ticket counter don't do it. And hopefully this process will recognize that and only get the best.”


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