Outside editorial: Life-and-death jobs

Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Detecting weapons and intercepting hijackers is a job for a crack force of trained guards, not ragtag crews of low-wage, high-turnover employees as is now the case at America's airports.

Congress is gaining momentum in the bid to make these front-line defenders against terrorism federal employees. After more than two decades of resisting such a move, a key airline lobbying group, the Air Transport Association, reversed course last week and now supports the effort. The Bush administration, however, has been flip-flopping, and it remains to be seen what its report on aviation security, scheduled for release today, will say on the subject.

Federalizing airport security is crucial for five reasons: It would eliminate glaring conflicts of interest. Airlines, whose economic vitality rests on moving passengers through overcrowded airports as quickly as possible, should not be in charge of hiring and evaluating security screeners, who must be free to track threats with unhurried deliberateness.

It would bring coherence to a fragmented system. The status quo is a jumble in which local airports, airlines, security companies and government agencies seldom talk with one another. Even when the airlines' only sophisticated detection system points out someone suspicious, that information is seldom passed on to baggage screeners, government officials and other essential security personnel.

It would require better training that would enable security personnel to use more sophisticated equipment and employ psychological screening techniques such as those used successfully in Israel. It would give airport security workers the legal authority to detain people and the ability to exchange data with the CIA, FBI and other agencies.

It would give airport security workers wages and benefits that would encourage them to stay on the job. Turnover among airport screening personnel is as high as 400 percent a year at some U.S. airports, mostly because the average salary, $6.25 an hour, is less than many fry cooks make at the McDonalds and Burger Kings near their checkpoints. Airport security should become a career path, not a dead end.

Of the 102 nations with large international airports, only the United States and Canada have privately run security.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, says that the nation could federalize all airport security officers and put a "sky marshal" on every commercial flight for a surcharge of less than $5 a ticket. As late as last week some airline officials were insisting that Americans would find that too high a price to pay. They're clearly not listening to their own passengers, who would readily pay that pittance to feel safe in the skies again.

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