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Screen and Screen Again

Touchy, touchy.

Since I wrote last week about Denver International Airport's overly enthusiastic, and absolutely inexplicable, frisking of females that insulted numerous travelers and stalled security-screening lines ("Busted!"), numerous readers have provided their own accounts. "I was one of those lucky females wearing a Victoria's Secret underwire bra that set off the sensors in both the box and with the wand," writes one woman from Cheyenne. "A woman with a Caribbean accent asked, 'May I touch you?' and gave me a thorough search with some squirrelly looking guy standing next to her, all too amused by the process. This all happened on October 1 on my way to Kansas City.

"Note that the next day on my way home, the KC airport did not frisk me and just ran my briefcase through the X-ray. It was a piece of cake. And I had an underwire bra on...Since I was traveling with business companions, I have caught a lot of hell about my Victoria's Secret bra with the 'razor' underwire. Makes for a good story over a beer, but I hate to think some nut is getting his (or her) jollies over it."

Hey, Cheyenne, would you hate it even more if you knew you were felt up by a felon?

Argenbright Security provides DIA's passenger and baggage screening under a contract controlled by United Airlines, the airport's major carrier -- and, let us not forget, ever, the same airline that had the bright idea of demanding that Denver install a newfangled automated baggage system at its new airport. The Atlanta-based Argenbright is the largest airport-security company in the country, responsible for security operations at many of the nation's airports, including all three at which planes were hijacked for September 11's terrorist missions. Maybe the sheer size of the company explains why it has trouble finding good help to fill the thousands of screening jobs. Or maybe it's the fact that, until very recently, the company paid its screeners little more than minimum wage.

It will soon be paying its lawyers a lot more than that. Last Thursday the Department of Justice announced that it would pursue further legal action against Argenbright, and accused the company of failing to meet the terms of a May 2000 settlement regarding security violations at Philadelphia International Airport, a deal that called for payment of $1.5 million in fines as well as improved oversight of employees. Specifically, Argenbright was to quit hiring convicted felons -- people who'd been convicted of everything from theft to forgery to prostitution to, yes, assault -- as "pre-departure screeners" and was to run criminal background checks on all existing and new employees. According to the Justice Department, the company has failed to do so. And Argenbright hasn't just screwed up in Philadelphia: Prosecutors charge the company with violating federal rules at thirteen other large airports (DIA not included).

"Numerous pre-departure screeners have been employed by Argenbright throughout the U.S. without adherence to FAA regulations, thereby potentially jeopardizing public safety at our nation's airports," according to Justice Department filings.

The alleged violations were so egregious that on Monday, Sky Harbor Airport -- the Phoenix facility included among those thirteen airports -- essentially fired Argenbright, pulling the company's commercial-use permit to operate at the airport. The airlines that contract with Argenbright have ten days to find another security screener -- or they can hope that the feds get the job before then.

Last week the Senate unanimously passed legislation authorizing the Justice Department to take over airport security screening. But the proposal is bound to encounter turbulence in the House, especially since lobbyists, funded by security firms that in turn are supported by airlines, are already out in force to fight the measure.

"I'm opposed because it would make them federal employees," says Representative Bob Schaffer, who represents Colorado's Fourth District. "I'm willing to entertain a compelling argument, but so far I haven't heard one."

He may on Saturday, when he conducts his own "safety inventory" at DIA. "I want to know what's different now than a month and a half ago," he explains. "I want to ask some of the questions that constituents are asking."

Representative Diana DeGette, whose district includes DIA, already has at least one answer. "Argenbright has been a problem nationwide," she says. "I think what we need to do is federalize airport security, and I think we need to do it ASAP."

Many of the constituents that she's encountered at DIA -- Republican and Democrat alike -- agree, DeGette says. So do some of the screeners. On one airport visit, DeGette met an Argenbright employee who told her she'd been on the job for just two weeks, working eleven-hour days. "I think they're doing their best with what they have," DeGette says. "It's set up for a nation that's not in the middle of a national crisis. The first line of defense is the airport screeners. So it seems to me we should have a uniform, well-paid screening staff."

And preferably not one that's working for a company that's working for the airlines, which have a vested interest in keeping screening costs down.

If these well-paid screeners frisk her in a federally authorized way, that's all right with DeGette. The congresswoman is used to setting off security alarms, since she has a metal hip. "I've been patted down twice at DIA," she says. "I'd rather have it that way than the other way."

But at DIA, officials still seem more concerned with putting a touchy-feely spin to the pat-down policy than they are with Argenbright's sketchy past. "I don't believe there is any reason for you to be 'outraged' at the security procedures at DIA," airport spokesman Chuck Cannon wrote to one woman who was upset at the treatment. "Pat-downs are performed only when an alarm sounds during the wanding process. Every alarm must be cleared, or the person will not be allowed through the screening area.

"To clear an alarm, the attendant must pat-down the area that set off the alarm. The attendant wears rubber gloves and conducts the pat-down with the back of his/her hands. There are strict procedures that the attendants must follow, and supervisors are in the area. I have personally watched a number of pat-downs of both men and women and there was no prodding, probing, squeezing or groping involved."

And if there were, well, Argenbright is United's problem, anyway -- or at least it was until the Department of Justice re-entered the picture last week.

"All we are is the shell," says mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson, reiterating the city's position that since Argenbright contracts with United to provide security screening, the city really has no control over the situation -- even though Denver owns the airport.

Fortunately for DIA concessionaires, the city takes a different approach to businesses that lease space within that shell; on Monday, Mayor Wellington Webb announced a four-point relief program for companies operating in and out of DIA that have been hit hard by recent events. And lately, the press office has been sending out helpful hints for travelers who want to avoid problems at security screening points: "The latest tip includes having travelers remove all jewelry from their entire body before walking through the metal detectors," last Friday's release offered. "This is especially important with jewelry involved in body piercing. Some of this jewelry is not always visible to the naked eye, yet it still sets off the metal detectors." (So far, jewel theft has not turned up on the list of Argenbright employee convictions.)

Besides, DIA officials have a few security issues of their own to worry about. The Federal Aviation Administration had given airports until October 10 to issue new security badges for all employees; about 3,000 of DIA's badges have yet to be revalidated. "To the airport's knowledge," the press office reports, "no airport employee failed to have a badge revalidated because the employee was a convicted felon..."

No, they probably thought it would be easier just to sign on at Argenbright, which last week was running ads in Denver's dailies promising security-screening wages of $12 an hour.