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Airport security firm 'finished,' DOT says

By Jeanne Meserve
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Department of Transportation has notified Argenbright Security, which employs 40 percent of the nation's airport screeners, that it will no longer do business with the company.

In the short-term, the decision will not affect Argenbright's work at U.S. airports, where the embattled security company now contracts with airlines and not the government. That will change beginning February 17, when the federal government begins an 180-day process of taking control of airport security from private screeners.

The DOT said it is asking competing security firms for bids to assume Argenbright's workload this winter and continue in that capacity until federal screeners take over.

The 15 U.S. airports where Argenbright is the sole screening company will be the first at which federal employees take over all screening operations, the department said. Those airports include Washington Dulles, Denver, Colorado, and Orlando Florida.

The U.S. government notified Argenbright, the nation's largest airport security firm, that it will no longer do business with the company. CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports (February 7)

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 What it means
The Transportation Department's decision Wednesday will have little impact on either airline security or Argenbright. Per congressional mandate, the government will take over airport security from all private screeners by late summer. Until that happens, Argenbright-employed screeners will be on the job, but their days will be numbered.

However, the DOT announcement means Argenbright may be the first company ousted from U.S. airports. It may also mean that other elements of Securicor, Argenbright's British-based parent company, could lose out on other valuable government contracts.

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The switchover likely will be completed by late spring, a DOT spokesman said.

Wednesday's announcement came amid a larger federal effort, led by the General Services Administration, to ban Argenbright from doing business with all branches of the U.S. government.

"Let there be no ambiguity," a transportation department spokesman said. "They are finished with the federal government."

Argenbright, a division of the British security firm Securicor, called the DOT's move "neither a surprise not a significant impact on our company." It was already considering not submitting any more bids to the department, the company said.

The company said it anticipated losing the business after Congress in November enacted the Aviation Security Act, which tightened screening procedures at U.S. airports, "and our business planning into account the cessation of this business," Argenbright said in a statement.

'Enron of airline security'

Argenbright has been subject to intense criticism following September 11, with the company admitting it hired felons and investigators claiming it used untrained personnel.

In November, a man carrying seven knives, a stun gun and a box labeled tear gas cleared Argenbright security in Chicago, Illinois. Just last week at the airport in San Francisco, California, thousands of travelers had to be rescreened because an Argenbright employee let slip away a man with what appeared to be explosive residue on his shoe.

"Argenbright is the Enron of airline security," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "They have failed us at every turn."

The General Services Administration, which manages all properties and officers of the federal government, is in the process of debarring Argenbright, which would ban it from winning federal contracts.

State Department officials said another unit of Securicor failed to disclose the GSA proceedings when it applied to handle security at the U.S. embassies in Athens, Greece, and Hong Kong. Because of that, the State Department said it likely will soon ban Securicor, including Argenbright, in advance of the debarment.

"Argenbright believes it has already addressed fully the concerns raised by the State Department," the security company said in its statement Wednesday. "The company intends to appeal this unwarranted action through the appropriate channels of review."




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