WASHINGTON – Southwest Airlines has hired a security firm with a history of violations to provide passenger and baggage screening at Baltimore/Washington International Airport beginning Thursday.
Argenbright Security, the nation’s largest, and perhaps most troubled airport security firm, is currently under investigation on charges that its screeners let a passenger at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport get to the gate of his United Airlines flight Saturday with knives and a stun gun.
And the Federal Aviation Administration fined Argenbright $1.2 million last year for hiring employees with criminal backgrounds to work at Philadelphia International Airport, for failing to properly train others and for falsifying training records.
But Southwest said it is committed to safety and is convinced Argenbright can do the job. The airline, together with the FAA, will monitor the Argenbright screeners’ performance at BWI, said a Southwest spokeswoman.
“Southwest has always, and always will, have the safety and security of our customers as our number one concern at all times,” said Christine Turneabe- Connelly, the spokeswoman.
Southwest was forced to hire a new security provider after its previous contractor, Wackenhut Corp., pulled out of the business over liability issues. A Wackenhut official said in September that the company made the decision several years ago because the entire company was being put at risk “in the hands of a $7-an-hour screener.”
Low pay contributes to high turnover rates in the screener industry, according to the General Accounting Office and the FAA, which in turn contributes to a failure to detect dangerous objects on passengers and in baggage.
One of the reasons Southwest chose Argenbright is that the company pays its employees more than workers at other security firms, Turneabe-Connelly said. Argenbright also offers health care to its employees.
Turneabe-Connelly could not say why those factors were top priorities in Southwest’s selection. Argenbright spokeswoman Sara Jackson could not say Wednesday how much screeners at BWI will be paid.
The final decision to go with Argenbright at BWI was made about six weeks ago, Turneabe-Connelly said, and the new security personnel have been preparing for the past week.
Argenbright also provides security for some airlines at Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport. At Dulles, The Washington Post reported that a woman got past three security checkpoints Tuesday with no one noticing that the name on her ID did not match the name on her boarding pass. The lapse went undetected until the a male passenger tried to sit in her seat.
Southwest will be Argenbright’s only contract at BWI. Jackson would not say whether the company is bidding on other former Wackenhut business at BWI.
Not all airlines have been satisfied with Argenbright. Northwest Airlines allowed its contract with the company to expire in 1999.
“Through our constant monitoring of their performance, we found they did not meet our expectations,” said Kurt Ebenhoch of Northwest. He would not give details on the problems.
Other arms of Argenbright Security have also come under scrutiny this year. In June, the state of Illinois put the company on probation for a year and fined it $10,000 for employing under-trained and unchecked security personnel at non-airport businesses.
Illinois officials said Argenbright supplied businesses and agencies with 97 people who were neither trained for the state-mandated 20 hours nor given a criminal background check.
Turneabe-Connelly conceded that “there have been concerns out there in Baltimore,” but insisted that the airline would keep on top of the situation.
“Any failure is too many for Southwest,” she said.