Living Wages and Airport Security

As the nation’s attention is focused on how to improve security and safety at our airports, considerable media coverage has highlighted the problems of low pay and inadequate training among the pre-board baggage screeners. We examine here the Quality Standards Program, an innovative effort at San Francisco International Airport that addresses this key issue, and with favorable results. This program may provide a model for improved airport security and safety nationally.

The Quality Standards Program at San Francisco International Airport was approved in January 2000 and its implementation began the following April. The program establishes recruitment, training, compensation and performance standards for all employers with workers in security areas or performing security functions at SFO. The standards, which exceed those set by the FAA, cover not only the baggage screeners, but also the skycaps, baggage handlers, airplane cleaners, fuelers, and boarding agents—anyone whose performance affects airport security and safety.

During the same period, SFO also initiated a similar program for other employers at the airport and began to expand worker voice throughout the airport. These initiatives developed from a living wage campaign in San Francisco that included the airport and from a multi-union organizing campaign that addressed many airport employers. The QSP’s coverage was thus not only broader than the pre-boarding security checkpoint. It also came into being in the context of a broader shift in labor-management relations.

In the summer of 2001 we surveyed airport firms to assess the benefits and the costs of the Quality Standards Program. We find reported improvements in overall job performance, significantly reduced employee turnover, and greater ease in recruiting more skilled applicants. Absenteeism, disciplinary problems and job dissatisfaction were also lower than before the program. All of these findings indicate improved job performance across the entire range of airport security and safety areas. We find also that the reported costs are modest in relation to the number of airport passengers.

We find that all these improvements can be attributed to the cooperative efforts among airport management, airport employers and airport unions in crafting and implementing the airport’s Quality Standards Program and the related programs as well. Increasing employee voice and improving the labor-management climate led not only to higher compensation but also to better training and job performance among security and safety workers. Although we have not yet obtained data on the results of past FAA security tests at SFO, we understand that security performance has improved as well.

These improvements, ironically, could be placed at risk by current discussions of reform. While transferring responsibility for pre-board security functions away from the airlines is probably desirable, the SFO model shows how agencies based at individual airports can accomplish these goals. Developments similar to those discussed here at SFO are also underway at Los Angeles International Airport and could be reproduced at other airports as well. Any new proposed Federal regulations should create floors and not ceilings, so that individual airports can organize security in a manner that takes local labor markets into account. Policy makers should examine the positive results and build upon what is being achieved in San Francisco.