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Outside the U.S., a different approach to air security

Tighter standards, better pay in Europe

From Mike Fish

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Grasping for ways to smarten up airport security, some aviation and security experts suggest the United States would be wise to embrace practices already in place in Western Europe.

Unlike in the United States, where lower-end wage workers often are the last line of defense at air terminals, airport security is viewed as a career path in many Western European countries. Security screeners are often twice as well paid and vastly better trained than their U.S. counterparts. A major police or military presence is found at airports. And the government or airport authority has ultimate responsibility for screeners -- not the airlines, which is the case in the United States.

"The pay, training, the benefits are all significantly different," said Gerald Dillingham, aviation security expert of Congress's General Accounting Office. "In addition, there is a cultural aspect in the sense that people in foreign countries often have a closer relationship with the idea of terrorism and protecting in many cases the national airline."

In Western Europe, the salary range for screeners is as much as $10 per hour higher than it is in the United States, where the crucial gatekeepers are paid $6- to $12-an-hour. Workers in other countries are viewed as being at the "middle income" level in those countries.

"The idea of airport security personnel [in the United States] earning $1,000 a month is insanity," said Rick Charles, a pilot, an aviation-safety consultant and Georgia State professor. "The people themselves aren't bad or stupid people. It's just that you are going to get people for whom it makes sense to work eight hours a day for $6 an hour. Then, you don't train them well. Then, you turn them into [the] butt of a national joke, which demoralizes the hell out of them."

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A U.S. government report last year found starting wages for screeners to be $6 an hour or less at 14 of the country's 19 largest airports, often a step down from what workers at fast-food restaurants at the airports earn.

That helps explain the staggering turnover rate among security screeners at the nation's airports. On average, entire staffs turn over at least once a year, according to a GAO study released last year.

During the study period of May 1998 to April 1999, the staff of security screeners at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta -- the nation's busiest airport -- turned over almost four times. Staff turned over twice at Boston's Logan Airport, where terrorists hijacked two planes September 11.

"The busiest airport in the world, you got almost a 400 percent turnover among minimum wage workers, not trained to pick out terrorists or question them for longer than 30 seconds," said Sen. Max Cleland (D-Georgia). "So what do you think the quality is there?"

The irony is the major companies that provide security at U.S. airports also contract for security overseas. However, instead of contracting with the air carriers, they deal directly with the government or airport authority.

So how out of step is the American way?

According to a GAO study, of the 103 countries with international airports, only two others place screening responsibility on the air carriers: Canada and Bermuda.

In contrast to the United States, Belgium requires screeners to be citizens; France requires screeners to be citizens of a European Union country. In the Netherlands, screeners do not have to be citizens, but they must have been residents of the country for five years.

Citizenship eases the ability to conduct background checks on potential screeners.

While the Federal Aviation Administration requires that screeners in this country have 12 hours of classroom training before they can begin work, France requires 60 hours of training. Belgium requires at least 40 hours of training with an additional 16-24 hours for each activity, such as X-ray machine operations that the screener will conduct.

Countries such as Belgium, France, Canada and India allow only ticketed passengers through the screening checkpoints, thus freeing screeners to more thoroughly check fewer people.

In the United Kingdom and at Belgium's main airport in Brussels, security forces -- often armed with automatic weapons -- patrol at or near checkpoints.

The Israeli airline El Al, widely deemed to practice the tightest security measures, places at least one armed, plainclothes sky marshal on its flights. On the ground, it uses a team of young agents to interrogate passengers. Questions include why passengers are flying to a particular city, who they know at their destination, and, why they paid for a ticket with cash.

"Those security people are very, very serious," said Michael Pangia, former FAA chief trial lawyer. "It is a matter of the job itself and how it is being approached."

Part 4: Various solutions have been proposed to improve U.S. airport security. The role of the federal government will likely play a pivotal role in the strategy approved by Congress >>



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