For a company hired to screen passengers at the nation's largest airports, Argenbright Security has proved unnervingly lax at screening its own employees. Last year, following an investigation at the Philadelphia airport, Argenbright pleaded guilty to criminal charges of falsifying employee backgrounds, which had led to the hiring of those whose records included drug possession and aggravated assault. The FAA imposed a probation, and Argenbright's then parent company, AHL, paid $1.6 million in penalties.
Argenbright, which is based in Atlanta, maintained that the breaches were perpetrated by "rogue" managers in Philadelphia. Last month, however, a new Department of Transportation investigation detailed security violations at 14 airports. And last week Argenbright was responsible for the security gaffe at O'Hare.
Argenbright is the largest U.S. provider of airport security, with 19,000 employees managing 40% of the passenger screeners used by U.S. airlines. It has expanded despite a mud-stained record. In 1997 undercover agents at Detroit's Northwest Airlines terminal sneaked a fake bomb through an X-ray machine; the airline subsequently canceled its contract with Argenbright at that airport. FAA investigators have discovered Argenbright employees who do not speak English and others who are undocumented immigrants. Its workers earn the equivalent of burger flippers at fast-food restaurants, and it has a turnover rate of nearly 400% at some airports. Argenbright employees were at the security posts at Dulles and Newark when the Sept. 11 hijackers slipped through, but they are not being held negligent in that situation.
Argenbright says its recent problems are owing in part to upheaval following its purchase last December by the British firm Securicor. To restore confidence after its rash of bad press, Securicor last week replaced Argenbright chief executive Frank Argenbright Jr. and said it was raising the hourly wages of its screeners. Company president Bill Barbour did not return TIME's phone calls for comment. Kenneth Quinn, a lawyer hired by a consortium of private security agencies, says much of Argenbright's negative publicity is unfair. "There's a spotlight now on incidents that would otherwise garner very little attention," says Quinn.
Senate majority leader Tom Daschle says that Argenbright should be "fired across the board" and that the Phoenix, Ariz., airport is in the process of kicking out the company. Yet last Friday Argenbright began screening passengers at Southwest and United terminals in Baltimore, Md. A Southwest spokeswoman says the airline decided to hire Argenbright more than a month ago. One major reason: it was the only company that agreed to boost staffing high enough to keep lines short.
--By Michele Orecklin, with reporting by Greg Land/Atlanta