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Airport Security: Low Pay and High Turnover May Be the Weak Link

Times Staff Writer

The people who staff the pre-boarding metal detectors and X-ray machines at airports have a tough, tedious job trying to make sure that weapons aren’t smuggled onto an airplane.

They must withstand the noise and conversation of harried passengers and concentrate for 30-minute stretches on a black-and-white monitor that is filled with odd-looking, ever-changing images that reveal the contents of each bag. They must have the nerve to stop a long line of passengers and open a suitcase if they see anything that hints at being a knife, a gun or a bomb. They also must check the badge of each airline employee who wishes to avoid going through the detection process.

High Tension, Low Pay

For all this, security screeners at Los Angeles International Airport--most of them women in their early 20s--are paid only about $140 a week. As is the case in most minimum-wage jobs, many don’t stay long. They often leave after less than a year, forcing security companies to operate in an atmosphere of constant turnover and training.

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This may explain why Federal Aviation Administration tests at LAX during a four-month period in late 1986 found that 28% of all mock weapons smuggled across pre-boarding security checkpoints were not detected. That performance was significantly worse than the national error rate of 20%.

“I have flown enough and seen the attitude of those people toward their jobs--ranging from being practically asleep to being hostile to looking at their watches ready to get off--and I would act that way too if I was paid that way,” said Jim O’Toole, editor of New Management magazine, published by the USC graduate school of business. “You tell people by the way they’re treated and paid that the job isn’t important and they’ll act like the job isn’t important.”

“There may be a lack of desire, there may be a lack of ability” among some employees, admitted an official of one of the five security companies hired by the airlines at LAX to run the pre-boarding security systems. “The X-ray equipment itself is good.”

To attract more conscientious applicants, “we’d probably have to start at $6 an hour,” nearly twice the current wage, an official of another of the security companies said.

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The effectiveness of the screening process has been in the spotlight since David A. Burke, a former USAir employee, smuggled a .44-caliber magnum onto PSA Flight 1771 at LAX on Dec. 7 and apparently shot the man who had recently fired him, Ray Thomson, a passenger on the flight. FBI agents believe Burke then shot the plane’s two pilots, causing a crash that killed all 43 people on board.

Had Another Badge

Burke had surrendered his USAir badge, which gave him authority to bypass the pre-boarding screening area at LAX, after he was fired. However, according to sources familiar with the incident, he had another USAir badge and when he displayed it on Dec. 7 he was waved around the metal detector by an employee of Allied Aviation Service, which services Terminal One.

Such bypassing is permitted under FAA rules. But what the FAA rules do not take into account, according to interviews with many airline employees, is that numerous employees have more than one badge and that some security personnel have not been meticulous about checking for badges if the airline employee who wanted to bypass the metal detector is a familiar face.

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Last week a local television newsman reported that he had gained access to a security area at LAX by using the identification card of an airport food service company employee who had left his job last year but had held onto his keys and I.D. badge. No one questioned his presence, he reported.

Fears have also been raised about the relative ease of reaching the Tarmac through other paths in the airport which are not known to passengers but are readily apparent to employees.

Circumvent Security

“Anyone who knows their way around the airport can circumvent security completely,” one security company official said.

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From visual observation at LAX in the wake of the crash of Flight 1771, it is clear that security personnel are taking a more rigorous view. At various terminals, some airline employees who want to bypass the metal detectors have expressed obvious surprise at requests to closely inspect their credentials.

“I’m telling them that even if the line backs down to the (airport entrance) door, don’t hesitate to stop and check a bag,” one security company supervisor said. “The media makes us look like idiots but there are people here who care.”

However, such vows of vigilance are not likely to satisfy critics, who are troubled by both the low weapon-detection rates and Burke’s ability to bypass the security checkpoint.

Tougher Screening

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On Wednesday the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners passed a resolution asking the FAA to require everyone except uniformed law enforcement officers to be screened at the pre-boarding area.

With approximately 20,000 people employed by airlines at LAX, such a change would result in “delays like never before,” said Dick Russell, a United Airlines captain and Los Angeles safety representative of the Air Line Pilots Assn. “If you can’t trust employees, who can you trust?”

Pressure is also expected from Congress. Under discussion there are proposals to:

- Force airlines to add more security screening stations at each terminal to make the line of passengers shorter and reduce the pressure on security personnel to move too quickly.

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“Part of the reason people get through with weapons is that rather than let passengers get too grouchy they don’t check a bag when (the X-ray image raises enough concern that) they should,” said Rep. Howard Nielson (R-Utah), a member of the House subcommittee on government activities and transportation.

- Publicize each airline’s record on FAA security tests, much as the government has done since September in publicizing each airline’s record of on-time flights. The FAA opposes this idea, saying it would invite terrorists to the most vulnerable airports. (The few statistics that have emerged for individual airports have come from sources other than the FAA.) The FAA will not even reveal a local breakdown of the 3,600 weapons seized and 1,500 arrests made at U.S. airports last year.

New Report Due Today

Updated statistics on FAA security tests are expected to be released today at a transportation subcommittee hearing. The numbers will be watched closely by the airlines, which under law are accountable for security at the terminals they service.

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The pressure to raise the detection rate on FAA tests is so great, said the official of one security company, that “it’s more important to find the FAA test weapons than the real ones.”

Another security company at LAX is in fact authorized by airline officials to pay $50 bonuses to personnel who catch mock weapons in luggage carried by FAA inspectors, as opposed to $25 for weapons seized from regular passengers.

In the office of a third company, the anxiety was reflected on a blackboard where someone had scrawled a warning about a new FAA test--"they hide an item in the bottom of the camera bag and it isn’t caught by a hand search.”

Pressure Not New

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The pressure was there long before David Burke brought down Flight 1771. Sixteen months ago, a Department of Transportation airport safety task force recommended that airlines cut down the number of people allowed to bypass passenger screening and require stricter identity checks.

Last June the General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency, released the FAA security test results showing that only 80% of more than 2,400 unloaded guns or fake bombs were detected during the pre-boarding screening at 28 major airports.

A month later, then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole told the FAA to order airlines to tighten procedures for screening passengers. A companion report by Dole’s task force criticized airlines for their “interest in minimizing the costs of providing security” and said airlines should be required to actively participate in the training of security personnel, rather than simply overseeing the security companies they hire.

In October, the FAA began to fine airlines up to $1,000 for each failure to detect a mock weapon.

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Test Data Questioned

A spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., which represents the airlines, said the airlines do not believe the FAA security test data is “comprehensive” enough to be completely accurate. Besides, he said, even an 80% detection rate “is a pretty strong deterrent” to anyone contemplating bringing a gun onto an airplane.

The spokesman scoffed at the suggestion that the performance of security personnel on FAA tests is related to their low pay. “Finances are only part of the equation,” he said.

Airlines have pushed hard to cut labor costs in a highly competitive, deregulated market. Many have introduced “two-tier” wage systems in which salaries of new workers are drastically reduced during the first several years of employment. Contracting security firms, rather than using higher-paid airline employees, is another method of keeping costs down.

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