Argenbright Security Inc., under fire from federal lawmakers for recent airport security breaches, will face intense scrutiny from state and local officials when it takes over security screening at one of Baltimore-Washington International Airport's major concourses this morning.
Southwest Airlines confirmed yesterday that it has hired the Atlanta-based company to staff checkpoints at its 16-gate B Pier. Argenbright also will take over security at United Airlines' three A Pier gates Monday, according to a United spokesman.
Southwest and United chose Argenbright after Wackenhut Corp. gave notice to both airlines that it is getting out of the airline security business. Wackenhut spokesman Patrick Cannan said the company controlled security at 70 airports in 1990 but now controls six.
Argenbright, which did not return repeated calls for comment, has become a lightning rod nationally in the debate over federalizing airport security.
The company handles passenger screening for United Airlines and American Airlines at Washington Dulles and at Newark international airports, where two of the four hijacked flights originated Sept. 11.
Last year, Argenbright was placed on probation and agreed to pay $1.2 million in fines and costs after federal prosecutors alleged that it hired convicted felons to man its checkpoints at Philadelphia International Airport. And this past weekend, Argenbright screeners at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport let a man carrying seven knives, a can of Mace and a stun gun pass through a security checkpoint.
"Southwest made a mistake that will make all of our jobs more difficult," U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said yesterday about the decision to bring Argenbright to BWI. Cardin said Southwest's decision undermines other efforts to safeguard BWI, among them 80 Maryland National Guardsmen stationed through the airport.
But Southwest's customer service manager, Chris Rupprecht, defended the airline's decision, saying that Southwest uses Argenbright at other airports and that the airline has confidence in the company, despite its recent lapses.
"There aren't that many companies that do airport security. Argenbright was able to say, `Yeah, we can come to Baltimore,'" he said. "It all depends on the person behind the machine. My concern is that the person behind the machine is properly trained."
A United Airlines spokesman declined to comment yesterday.
Passenger screening continues to be a major concern at BWI. Yesterday, federal authorities charged M. Chanel Brown, 30, of Glen Burnie with violating airport security regulations after an incident last weekend in which she allegedly passed through a Southwest Airlines checkpoint with a small artist's knife in her bag, prompting the evacuation of a pier.
Most of the Argenbright screeners will be former Wackenhut employees, doing the same jobs they've had for years but in a different uniform. Argenbright has been holding career fairs in the area and will bring in more screeners, and Rupprecht said the airline will make sure Argenbright's training is "at the highest level."
BWI officials will be watching, too: Last month, its top administrator wrote to Southwest and United managers expressing concerns about Argenbright's management after learning that the airlines were considering the change.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend also has concerns about Argenbright, said her chief of staff, Alan Fleishmann.
"She has made it very clear to BWI, which in turn is making it very clear to the airlines, that they are both responsible for the private security firms, and must hold them to the highest standards of both BWI and the FAA," he said.