Safety is as safety does

Posted: Nov 10, 2001 12:00 AM
On Saturday, an unemployed Nepalese national and illegal immigrant named Subash Gurung, 27, made it past airline screening at O'Hare airport with seven knives, a stun gun and a can of pepper spray in his carry-on bag. If that wasn't bad enough, it seems that a private security firm's screeners didn't search Gurung's bag, even though they had found two other knives on Gurung's person. The New York Times and some Democrats in the U.S. Senate apparently think that if Congress passes a bill similar to the Senate's version of the aviation safety bill -- which would make all airport security personnel federal employees -- airline security suddenly will be hunky dory. If only. When U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta discussed airline safety with The San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board yesterday, he made it clear that cleaning up the flawed system isn't going to be as easy as passing one bill. The Senate bill, I should mention, has one clear advantage: It would shut out the sort of low-bidding security outfits that have allowed unconscionable security lapses, a la Gurung. (The House bill is in The New York Times' doghouse because it would allow McSecurity to stay in business.) Mineta has little use for Argenbright Security Inc., the firm that opened O'Hare's gates for Gurung. He'd love to fine the outfit for "pure incompetence, " he confessed, but he only has the authority to fine United Airlines for hiring Argenbright. He has ordered an investigation into the incident. With no love for the likes of Argenbright, you'd expect Mineta to love the Senate package. But the lone Democrat in the Bush Cabinet isn't pushing federal civil service uber alles. "I'm not really interested in who signs the paycheck," he said. "My question is who's going to do the more effective job?" Mineta believes that increasing screeners' pay, which the House bill would allow him to do, from near minimum wage to the wage of an entry-level customs inspector of $25,200 a year, would result in "a different kind of employee." Three-digit turnover ratios would disappear. Also, international security companies that haven't bid for airport work because they don't like engaging in a "low-bid shootout" would get interested in bidding on airport work and bring some class to the operation. There's also a time issue here. A House Republican aide recently told me he didn't think a federal workforce could be trained and in place in less than six months. Mineta wouldn't give a time line, but he did talk about the nightmare logistics of training sky marshals and ground security supervisors. His department is preparing to set up a "boot camp" for sky marshals and other security workers to put airline safety on a "wartime footing." The curriculum is 14 weeks long, although he's trying to pare that to maybe four weeks for those with law enforcement experience. Still, training all those new employees can't begin until after completing background checks on 5,000 to 8,000 people. "That's going to be a real bear," Mineta noted. Add screeners to the mix, as the Senate bill would do, and the total could exceed 40,000 new employees to screen and train. I'll add that since federal immigration service workers didn't exactly impede Gurung's travels, making all security employees federal workers won't guarantee an end to security breaches, as some partisans seem to think. "No one wants to have something happen on their watch," Mineta explained as the reason he believes that even without a signed compromise bill, flying is safe. While Washington pols are accusing each other of being "partisan," workers, from air traffic controllers to gate personnel, have put in the extra effort to keep the skies safe. It was, I'll add, a United gate worker who -- unlike the Argenbright screener -- examined Gurung's bag and found a mini-arsenal.
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