WASHINGTON – The turnover rate for screeners at Baltimore/Washington International Airport hit 155 percent in one year, a rate that officials say is typical in the industry and leads to poorly trained screeners working in airport terminals.
At congressional hearings in the wake of last week’s terrorist hijackings, witnesses this week repeatedly said that the screener’s job is one of the most important in the airport security system. Screeners check people and luggage for dangerous objects and often serve as the last barrier between terrorists and an airplane.
But witnesses also said that the monotony of the job, its low pay and minimum or no benefits make it one of the least desirable.
The resulting high turnover not only leads to poorly trained screeners, but to a “huge number of people out there who know how aviation screening works,” said Gerald Dillingham, a director at the General Accounting Office. The GAO reported that BWI experienced 155 percent turnover from May 1998 to April 1999.
Problems with security screeners got so bad that Wackenhut Corp., one of two companies now providing security at BWI, decided several years ago to get out of the aviation business because the entire company was at risk “in the hands of a $7-an-hour screener,” one official said.
Wackenhut decided to pull out five to six years ago due to the high liability involved, said Patrick Cannan, director of corporate relations. He said BWI is one of three airports where Wackenhut still works, and the company will not seek to renew the contract when it expires this year.
But BWI is not the only airport with screener problems.
At Washington-Dulles International Airport, 80 percent of the screener staff do not have U.S. citizenship, said Kenneth Mead, inspector general of the Department of Transportation.
Dulles is one of 46 airports served by Argenbright Holdings, a security firm that was fined over $1 million in April 2000 for staffing Philadelphia International Airport with some untrained employees, said Rep. Harold Rogers, R- Ky., in hearings this week. Some of those employees had criminal backgrounds, Rogers said.
“I clearly got the idea that this is not a job where you would find the most skilled persons,” Rogers said.
Cannan said Wackenhut, which also contracts out uniformed security officers to businesses and government agencies, requires those officers to pass criminal background checks, credit checks and personality tests. They must also hold a college degree in criminology or have graduated from a law enforcement academy or an elite military group, and then complete 40 to 80 hours of training.
But those officers averaged $10 an hour. The company could not afford to hire them for the airlines, which contracted with the lowest-bidding companies.
Standards were much lower for those hired as airport screeners, even after Wackenhut “slightly” raised the Federal Aviation Administration mandated criteria, Cannan said.
“We were having to lower our standards to hire people,” Cannan said. He could not estimate just what qualifications and training were used for screeners at BWI.
Much of the questioning at congressional hearings this week was about the quality and training of screeners.
But Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., stressed that blame could not be placed on any one individual or agency.
“We can’t expect an $8-an-hour security screener to foil an attack that a multibillion-dollar intelligence system could not prevent,” Murray said.
Many major airports are using local and state police to beef up security, said Jane Garvey, administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said BWI was one of the airports enlisting police help.
Mineta said that the Sept. 11 attacks proved the “sobering need for heightened vigilance,” both in the airports and in other areas of transportation.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, said Thursday night that the government should take over aviation security screening, either by using the National Guard or by carefully training citizens.