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Airport security: A system driven by the minimum wage

Travelers prepare to pass through security screening checkpoints at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago  

From Mike Fish

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- If you are an air traveler, you might have thought security personnel at airport checkpoints worked for the government. The airlines, maybe. Or you may have guessed the local airport authority.

The truth is, under current Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, although airlines are responsible for airport security, they bid the task out to private security firms.

"What happened is we dumbed down the security system, because an airline is going to want to cut cost, specifically when we have a downturn in the economy and they are fighting for their lives," said Sen. Max Cleland (D-Georgia), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

"So, if you have the airlines responsible for $1.8 billion worth of security at 700 checkpoints in America, they're dumbing down the system," he added. "They go to the low bidder on a contract. Then, the contractor is going to go to the lowest cost person out there -- minimum wage people -- so they can make a little money."

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According to reports submitted to Congress, security screeners are generally paid at or near minimum wage to serve as, in many cases, the last line of defense for safe air travel.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported that in the year 2000 the starting salary for security screeners at 14 of the nation's 18 largest airports was $6 or less. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.

And that's just one aspect of airport security.

The FAA, critics argue, is responsible for perpetuating a system of levying fines when security breaches are found rather than seeking harsher corrective measures for the airlines. It has created an environment where fines are reduced substantially in negotiations and payment is considered by many airlines as a cost of doing business, according to former FAA officials and industry experts.

FAA officials acknowledge a significant number of fines are appealed, but dispute that the practice adversely affects airport security.

"What we want is for the airlines to get in compliance with the regulations," said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. "However they do that is fine with us, as long as they do it. In these times, I would think that imposing pretty hefty fines is the last thing that they need."

While lax screening has not been directly linked to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, watchdog groups and government agencies have long decried the ability to pass weapons past airport security.

In mid-September, just days after the terrorist attacks, three undercover deputies from the Broward County, Florida, sheriff's department carried a pocket knife, box-cutter and cutting tool in their clothing and purses past metal detectors and X-ray machines at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport without being stopped. They walked into two domestic flight gates and an international concourse, police said.

Congressional reports portray screeners as inadequately trained and find that entire airport security teams -- considered one of the most crucial jobs in assuring passenger safety -- routinely turn over at least once a year.

A computer-assisted analysis of FAA enforcement data from 1991 to 2000 also found:

-- The top 10 carriers incurred $13.13 million in FAA fines since 1998, fines which critics say have done little to fix security shortcomings.

-- According to FAA data, Logan International Airport in Boston, Dulles in Virginia and Newark International -- the originating points for the terrorist hijackings -- have some of the lowest number of weapons caught by airline screeners as a percentage of all reported security violations at each airport. Weapons include firearms, knives, explosives, tear gas and incendiary devices. (Full story)

-- American Airlines, one of the carriers whose planes were hijacked September 11, was cited for the most security incidents in the decade. Delta Air Lines was second, and United Air Lines, the other carrier whose planes were hijacked, had the third-highest number of incidents. Combined, the American and United airlines have paid more than $5 million in FAA fines during the past three years.

Some of the nonweapons-related violations cited by the FAA include unauthorized vehicles on tarmacs; failure to run luggage through X-ray equipment before being loaded onto a plane, and allowing people without proper security badges to enter secure areas.

Officials for the airlines say their companies have simply followed FAA guidelines. But now, amid the finger pointing, Congress is proposing to make airport security staff federal employees, while the American public is wondering why the system in place has been seen as failing.

Members of Congress say part of the reason airport security has become a problem is a system geared to cutting costs and increasing profits. Ironically, financial pressures on airlines are now behind the urgency to fix the airport security system: The number of air travelers declined 34 percent in September, an airline industry trade group reported.

"We've got to move fast on this, because the airlines are bleeding," Cleland said. "Unless they get 65 percent (capacity) in that cabin they don't make any money. So, security is No. 1 in a series of confidence-building measures that will bring people back to fly."

A conflict of interest, critics say

Former FAA officials and industry experts insist the airlines are not equipped to oversee airport security screening. The airlines are in the business of moving people with maximum safety in the air, they say, and are not equipped to deal with security issues on the ground.

Ensuring comprehensive screening presents a conflict, critics say, between profit-driven airlines trying to minimize flight delays and the responsibility the companies carry to provide security. The U.S. government ordered passenger screening in 1973 after a spate of hijackings.

The system that has developed has turned into the current practice of placing airlines in charge of airport security.

"We see it as a conflict," said Gerald Dillingham, associate director of the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. "You're talking different missions."

Some believe such a conflict of purpose dilutes the quality of screening at major airports in this country.

"When we get to these peak periods, those security screeners feel the pressure to move these people along," said Rick Charles, an aviation security consultant and Georgia State University professor.

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said two department studies, including one in 1996, documented how the performance of security screeners had been influenced by at least perceived pressure from airlines.

A GAO report revealed that the annual turnover among screeners averaged 126 percent at the country's 19 largest airports. Five airports reported turnover of 200 percent or more -- including airports in St. Louis (416 percent), Atlanta (375), Houston (237), Boston (207) and Chicago (200).

Officials for both United Air Lines and American Airlines denied that airlines pressure screeners. Spokesmen from both companies added that they are in compliance with all FAA security directives.

"Everybody goes through that screening checkpoint regardless of how long the line may be," said Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America, a trade group for the major airlines. "You don't cut corners just because there are more people."

Airlines pour money into campaigns

One way the airlines, like most industries, have attempted to influence federal oversight through the years has been through contributions to political candidates in both major parties, say Schiavo and other industry experts. The diluted recommendations of the Gore Commission -- formed in 1996 after the explosion that tore apart TWA Flight 800 off Long Island and headed by then-Vice President Al Gore -- are an example of this effort, say critics of the system.

The commission initially favored measures that included baggage matching, which would have required that no checked bag, even on a connecting flight, could be loaded unless the ticket holder boarded the flight. The airlines argued that it would prove too costly and enrage passengers.

The commission delayed immediate implementation of the plan.

In all, the airlines gave the Democratic Party $585,000 in the closing weeks of the 1996 election, twice what was given the Republican Party, according to an analysis of contributions by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Elaine Kamarck, senior policy adviser to Gore, said neither she nor the vice president was even aware of the contributions at the time, and disputed that the commission's final report went easy on the airlines.

"Why they contributed that money at that point in time is very simple -- we were winning,'' Kamarck said. "And every corporation in America, whether there was a commission on them or not, was contributing lots and lots of money to the Clinton-Gore campaign in October of '96 because it was a good bet. That is what happens in presidential campaigns.''

If the airlines appreciated Gore in 1996, they soured during his 2000 presidential run. They gave him $57,000, which was a third of the airlines' contribution to the campaign of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Relationship between FAA, airlines under scrutiny

In general, critics believe the FAA has long played too supportive a role of the airline industry rather than acting in an enforcement capacity.

"The FAA has entered into all sorts of collegial partnerships with the very people they regulate," said Billie Vincent, FAA security chief in the mid-1980s. "That is fine to a degree. You certainly need to work with others. But the FAA is a regulatory agency that is supposed to be the watchdog for us, and security is one sub-part of that.

"What happens is the most powerful entity, which are the airlines, through their trade organization and direct representation, decide much of the policies of the FAA," Vincent added. "And there ought to be more independence there, as far as I am concerned."

Takemoto, the FAA spokesperson, said the federal agency and the airlines are not too close.

"We constantly audit the airline security," he said. "We have FAA inspectors whose job that is.''

The relationship between the FAA and airlines filters into a system of assessing fines, however, that industry experts say gives rise to habitual offenders. Writing a check for the fines can often be cheaper than the cost for the corrective measures to improve security, analysts say.

In 1999 alone, the last full year of records, a CNN database analysis found Delta Air Lines was cited for 729 security violations; United, 661 and American, 555. In the two-year 1997-98 period, the three airlines were cited for a total of 3,552 violations.

"My criticism of the FAA is these breaches have existed over and over again," said Michael Pangia, former FAA chief trial lawyer.

Pangia said "it's a common practice" for the airlines and FAA to negotiate fines down to as low as 10 cents on a dollar -- and often times agreeing on a price for a bulk of fines.

"It's obvious the airlines don't want these breaches, but it is a whole lot easier to pay the fines," Pangia said. "And the FAA has thought they are doing their job, because they are fining people. But when they keep levying the same fines year after year after year, they ought to wake up and say there is something wrong with this system."

Part 2: Warnings about security at U.S. airports have been issued repeatedly over the years. >>



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