WASHINGTON – The government will not sign new contracts with troubled Argenbright Security Inc. to screen passengers and baggage at airports, after lapses by the nation's biggest aviation security company.
"The secretary decided that the Department of Transportation will no longer do business with Argenbright," Transportation Department spokesman Lenny Alcivar said Wednesday.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's decision was due in part to action taken by the State Department against Argenbright that, if it becomes final, would bar most federal agencies from contracting with the company, Alcivar said.
Atlanta-based Argenbright, now owned by the British security conglomerate Securicor, is appealing the State Department's move. Even if the company fails, the Transportation Department could seek a waiver from the contract restriction.
But, other troubles at Argenbright led Mineta to decide to end the company's role in providing airport security as soon as possible, Alcivar said.
On Feb. 17, the agency's new Transportation Security Administration takes over the airlines' security contracts with private companies. The government will start phasing in the hiring of federal workers as replacements, to be completed by Nov. 19.
Argenbright will continue operating during that transition period at airports such as Denver, Dulles and Orlando where it is the sole provider of security. That will put those airports at the front of the line for the new federal screeners, Alcivar said.
Argenbright's chief executive, David Beaton, said in a statement that the decision, though "unnecessary," will not significantly affect the company.
Its business plan already recognized that all private security contracts would end by November, he said. Also, because of concerns about the procurement process, the company had not even decided whether to bid for the transitional business, Beaton said.
Nonetheless, Beaton said, "We want to do everything possible to cooperate and minimize disruption to airlines and their customers."
Argenbright handles 40 percent of the nation's domestic airport security.
In May 2000, Argenbright agreed to pay a more than $1 million penalty after federal prosecutors alleged it hired convicted felons to work at checkpoints at Philadelphia International Airport.
The company also manned two locations, in Washington and Newark, that hijackers walked through on Sept. 11, and has faced criticism at other airports since.
The company lost its contract at Logan Airport in Boston last year after security lapses. In November, the company's screeners allowed a man to pass through a Chicago checkpoint with knives and a stun gun. Last month, an Argenbright screener allowed a man whose shoes set off explosive-detecting alarms to disappear from the San Francisco airport.
The State Department took action against Argenbright after company officials allegedly failed to disclose the guilty pleas in the Philadelphia case on applications for work at two American embassies overseas, an agency spokesperson said.