SFO bag screeners blame privatization for alleged air safety lapses 

click to enlarge From newcomer to industry leader: Covenant Aviation Security, which didn’t enter the airport safety industry until after 9/11, touts its credentials on its website. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • From newcomer to industry leader: Covenant Aviation Security, which didn’t enter the airport safety industry until after 9/11, touts its credentials on its website.

Covenant Aviation Security, the most prominent private company within its industry, has a national reputation for efficiency and customer service. That status has helped it retain a San Francisco International Airport contract now worth nearly $100 million a year.

“Everything I’ve known about Covenant for the past 10 years has been that it’s a very good company, a very value-based company,” said Jeff Price, an associate professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State College of Denver with no professional ties to the firm.

As the country’s largest privately protected airport, SFO should be a sterling example of the benefits of privatization. After all, private screeners must adhere to the same stringent security standards as federal employees.

But disgruntled employees say that Covenant is instead an example of why aviation security should be left in the hands of the federal Transportation Security Administration.

These whistle-blowers say Covenant once provided excellent security, but its work has since deteriorated. Seven screeners, six of whom only discussed their complaints anonymously for fear of retribution, say the company retains its contract by scrimping at the expense of safety. The result, they allege, is that dozens to hundreds of bags identified as potential bomb threats at SFO are loaded onto planes each day without inspection.

“They get a bag of money from the TSA and their job is to try to keep as much as possible,” one baggage screener said. “This is why privatization doesn’t work in security.”

Covenant declined multiple requests to comment for this series. Spokeswoman Margaret Cummins would only release a statement noting that company and federal officials had investigated and dismissed all such allegations as groundless. And despite the allegations, no whistle-blowers cited any case in which a high-risk bag actually harmed anyone.

But whistle-blowers claim that Covenant’s failure to hire enough screeners to properly inspect all the bags that pass through SFO is just one of many cost-saving measures.

Since 2002, it has eliminated overtime; rolled back wages and benefits; and cut extras such as shoes, uniforms, laundry service and family medical coverage, according to Security First @ SFO, an employee blog created to expose “the managerial failings of CAS.” It also skimped on training, whistle-blowers allege, reducing screeners’ once-rigorous hands-on instruction to a computer-based program.

Before 9/11, private security firms dominated the field. But after the terrorist attacks revealed security weaknesses, system critics said federal screening was needed. And with the TSA’s creation, a multibillion-dollar industry was wiped out — but not without a fight.

Private security companies successfully lobbied to keep five airports under private control. SFO was the largest such airport.

As airport spokesman Michael McCarron tells it, SFO officials preferred the hiring flexibility and better employee retention of private security, which provided more leeway to serve SFO’s rapid ebb and flow of passengers.

“International arriving passengers paid the price with unnecessarily long lines,” McCarron said. “We didn’t want to repeat that with an all-new federal agency.”

However, baggage screener Stephen Burke says SFO also remained private for political reasons. Burke said then-Mayor Willie Brown preferred private security because of his ties to Service Employees International Union 790, which still represents SFO screeners.

Covenant Services Worldwide, the parent company of Covenant Aviation Security, was already known for protecting Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But even though it didn’t enter aviation security until after 9/11, Covenant landed the SFO contract, stunning industry leaders and lawmakers.

Since 2002, Covenant has received almost two-thirds of the $1.31 billion in security contracts awarded by the TSA. It provided guards for John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York and also has contracts in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Montana.

Two years after 9/11, this outsourcing was deemed a success. But TSA’s attitude soured, and privatization has only expanded to 17 airports nationwide in the years since. TSA Director John Pistole grounded that expansion last year, arguing that private security — which he said costs 3 percent to 9 percent more than federal screening — had not been proven to offer a “clear and substantial advantage.”

Yet Pistole’s resistance spurred a congressional backlash, culminating in a February law making it easier for private firms to win TSA contracts. Now, before the agency rejects a private security bid, it must prove that privatization is less cost-effective and safe than the agency’s own security.

The TSA declined to grant an interview with Pistole.


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Niko Kyriakou

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