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Security firm plans overhaul after failures

Under fire for a lengthy series of lapses at airport checkpoints, Argenbright Security, the nation's largest airport security company, appointed a new chief executive Friday to replace its founder. It also announced an overhaul of its policies to improve training and weed out employees with criminal records.

David Beaton, an executive at Securicor, Argenbright's British owner, was named to replace Frank A. Argenbright Jr., who built the company from a small polygraph operation in Atlanta in 1979. Beaton said Argenbright was retiring as planned and declined to say whether the departure was related to the company's problems.

The company also plans to increase the wages of its 7,000 checkpoint screeners _ in some cases, to more than twice the minimum wage that many of them are now paid _ and will hire a second screener to work at every X-ray machine that examines carryon luggage. All screeners will have their backgrounds rechecked for criminal convictions, Beaton said, and new employees will receive 40 hours of classroom training instead of the 12 required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Argenbright handles security at Airside D at Tampa International Airport.

Friday's moves were clearly an effort to salvage the company's reputation _ and stave off a federal takeover of the industry _ at a time when Argenbright is being attacked almost daily by officials in Washington as the most prominent example of the country's porous aviation security system.

Company officials have acknowledged that supervisors in Philadelphia forged documents to allow people with criminal records to work as checkpoint screeners, and frequently allowed workers to skip the federally required training and tests. Two Argenbright employees were fired in Chicago this week, accused of stealing knives carried by a passenger who was almost able to take them onto a plane. The Sept. 11 hijackers smuggled their box cutters past two company checkpoints.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has accused the company of committing "an astonishing pattern of crimes," and this week Gov. Parris N. Glendening of Maryland criticized Southwest Airlines for hiring Argenbright to check passengers at Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

While not commenting on past problems, Beaton said it was time to bring Argenbright _ which has 40 percent of the nation's airport security business _ up to the higher standards of European airports.

Some of the proposed changes could involve significant costs to the airlines, which pay companies like Argenbright for their security, and inconvenience to passengers. For example, the company plans to hand-search any bag that contains an item opaque to X-rays and will automatically hand-search the luggage of any passenger carrying a suspicious item caught by a metal detector.

Beaton said he knew the policies could increase waiting time at checkpoints but considered them important to achieve the government's zero-tolerance policy for airport threats.