There is still a lively debate in progress about whether the airport security industry was properly prepared for the terrorist attacks that devastated America on September 11, but there’s no question about whether the industry was prepared for the onslaught of media attention that followed: it wasn’t. Most of the industry’s major players had no inside counsel, and at least one had no in-house PR department. And the industry as a whole had no trade association looking out for its interests in Washington.
One major player, Cleveland-based International Total Services, had hired a PR firm in August, because it was preparing to declare bankruptcy and wanted assistance communicating with its employees and with the financial community. That PR firm, Edward Howard & Company, suddenly found itself facing a completely different set of questions in the wake of the security attacks. Meanwhile, other major players in the industry hastily organized a trade association, the Aviation Security Association, and hired the Washington office of Burson-Marsteller to help it respond to calls for the nationalization of airport security services.
Edward Howard president Cathy Obert was in New York with ITS management on September 11, the date the company had scheduled its bankruptcy filing—a filing that was delayed for a couple of days because of the attacks. ITS was already in crisis communications mode, but it found itself dealing with a crisis very different from the one it had anticipated.
“It is a public company, but its priorities were its employees and its customers,” says Obert. “It was very important that people continue to show up for work, which meant employees had to know their salaries would be protected. The industry has high turnover at the best of times so it was important to keep employees informed.”
The PR firm put in place systems designed to get out to as many employees as possible as quickly as possible. It set up a “cascading” communications approach, providing managers with the information they needed to explain the bankruptcy filing to employees. Says Obert, “Many of these employees don’t have desks; they don’t have access to computers or even to phones in some cases.”
That communications infrastructure was useful after the September 11 attacks, and ITS has been communicating aggressively both internally and externally, at a time when many competitors have clammed up. “You have an industry nobody knew existed suddenly thrust into the limelight and subject to a lot of negative perceptions,” says Obert. “A lot of companies refused to say anything. But we felt we had to say something because of the situation we were in.”
The entire industry was suddenly under attack, and ITS faced even sharper questions that many of its competitors because of its recent bankruptcy filing, which appeared to support the contention that the security industry was populated by poorly-run, fly-by-night businesses, which skimped on training and paid their people poorly.
“I think the immediate media reaction was that the airport security system let the terrorists through, and that resulted in this whole tragedy,” says Obert. “It was seen as a case of these people not doing their jobs. The security companies were seen as shoddy companies who didn’t pay their people well or train them well.”
The industry understood the risk, and was quick to act. Within 48 hours it had formed its own trade group, the Aviation Security Association, and hired a lobbyist, former Transportation Department official Kenneth Quinn, who made several television appearances to explain the industry’s role. The association also hired international public relations agency Burson-Marsteller.
“Our first challenge was to communicate the fact that from all the evidence, there was no failure of any individual screener at any individual airport,” says Brian Lott, a director at Burson-Marsteller and account team leader of the Aviation Security Association business. As remarkable as it now seems, pre-September 11 regulations permitted passengers to take on board not only box-cutters but also knives up to 4 inches in length.
But overall, the performance of security companies has been poor, according to government investigators. In April 2000, the General Accounting Office reported to Congress on the latest of a series of tests in which investigators set out to slip weapons by airport security. “Screeners’ ability to detect objects during the agency’s tests is not improving, and in some cases is worsening,” the report claimed. And last year, Argenbright pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $1.2 million for falsifying records, performing inadequate background checks and hiring at least 14 airport workers in Philadelphia who had criminal convictions for burglary, firearm possession, drug dealing and other crimes.
ITS, meanwhile, had to explain its own situation, which included the presence of a relatively new management team that was turning the company around. As far as training is concerned, ITS provides three times as much as is required by the federal government, and under a new management team instilled two years ago has won awards from the Federal Aviation Administration, which named ITS its “Screener of the Year” last year.
But turnover is a very real issue. In some parts of the industry, turnover is as high as 400 percent. Employees quit to take better paying jobs at airport Burger Kings or McDonald’s, Obert says. But in San Francisco, where the city insists on a higher pay scale for airport workers, turnover is a significantly lower 20 percent.
With calls for the federalization of the airport security business mounting, the ASA understood it was under attack, but it also sensed an opportunity. The association includes some of the world’s biggest security firms, most of them headquartered in Europe: Securitas AB, which owns Globe Aviation Services, one of this country’s largest airline security companies; Securicor, a British firm that owns Argenbright; and ICTS International NV of the Netherlands, which owns Creve Coeur-based Huntleigh USA.
These same companies operate airport security in Europe, quite successfully, and have long been critical of the approach in the U.S.
“One of the problems with the current security system is that security companies are hired by the airlines,” says Lott. “That means spending on security has been driven by price concerns, which results in very low wages for security people. In Europe, the government contracts with private firms, which means wages can be a little higher.”
Says Thomas Berglund, chief executive of Securitas, “This is an opportunity to fix what has been wrong for many, many years in the United States.” Securitas screens passengers for American Airlines at Logan International Airport in Boston, the point of departure for the first hijacked plane to hit the World Trade Center.
But the immediate reaction of many observers was that airport security should be treated as national security and privatized. “It’s the job of the U.S. government to keep America safe,” says Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV). “We can no longer afford to leave any aspect of our airport security to the lowest bidder among private companies. We need a federal work force with federal training and testing, federal accountability and oversight at every airport in the country—large and small.”
After the Senate passed a bill that would put airport security in the hands of the Justice Department, the industry’s lobbying efforts intensified. The security companies are supporting President George W. Bush’s proposal, which would create a federal management structure but allow the government to contract out the screener positions to private companies.
“What the industry has done over the past four weeks is to communicate to the media and to Congress that there are better ways to do aviation security,” says Lott. In particular, the industry has pointed to the security model in place at European airports with a history of dealing with terrorism—airports in Northern Ireland, England, and Germany—and suggested the U.S. move closer to that model.
In fact, about 85 percent of European airport security workers are employed by private companies, working under supervision from the remaining 15 percent, who are government employees. In the U.S, prior to September 11, almost 100 percent of airport security workers were employed by private companies.
“We’re saying that basically the nationalized approach is a failed approach,” says Quinn. European countries tried that in the 1960s and 70s and still suffered a spate of hijackings and other attacks, he says. “The governments in Europe realized they could not combat terrorism alone, and they need to turn to the private sector for technology and a security work force.”
B-M has developed a website for the association, created a number of position papers that were distributed on Capitol Hill, and held dozens of meeting with Congressional staffers. This week, the European CEOs of the association’s members flew in for a briefing with members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. A day later, many of them were present as the House of Representatives unveiled its aviation security bill, which included many of the measures supported by the industry.
In fact, House Transportation Committee chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) turned the press conference over to none other than the counsel for the Aviation Security Association, Kenneth Quinn, who answered reporters’ questions for about 10 minutes.
The PR agency has also met with editorial boards, providing reporters with a better understanding of the European model. “Because the industry has never had the kind of coverage it has had over the past four weeks, there was a knowledge gap,” says Lott, who says even reporters who covered the aviation beat were not familiar with the workings of the security firms. “Many reporters believed the European model was a nationalized workforce. We had to explain that was not the case.”
Lott says the media coverage of the industry has been fair, and Obert agrees. “On the whole, the national media has done a good job of looking into this, and understanding that it’s a very complex issue,” she says.
Still, the industry is at a crossroads. If the Senate bill is passed, the private aviation security business in the United States will have no role. But if the European model is adopted, the business could find itself expanding, with better pay and working conditions.
“It’s a very unusual situation for the industry,” says Obert. “It could be a situation from which they emerge with dramatically increased demand for their services, because of new rules and regulations, or it could be the death of the industry.”