Better pay for airport screeners improves job performance

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

27 September 2001 | Increasing wages for airport security workers significantly reduces turnover and improves job performance, according to a preliminary study by a Berkeley research team that is examining an innovative program at San Francisco International Airport.

The report comes as national attention focuses on how to improve security and safety at our airports, as well as on the impacts of low pay, inadequate training and turnover among the 8,000 pre-board baggage screeners in the United States.

“Paying airport workers a living wage is proving to be successful in San Francisco,” said Michael Reich, professor of economics in the College of Letters & Science and research chair for the Institute for Labor and Employment, which is sponsoring the study. “The quality standards program at the San Francisco International Airport should be looked to as a model.”

The quality standards program was established at the airport in January 2000 and set recruitment, training, pay and benefit standards for all employers with workers in security areas or performing security functions at the airport. The standards are above those required by the Federal Aviation Administration. They cover baggage screeners, but also skycaps, baggage handlers, airplane cleaners, fuelers, and boarding agents—anyone whose performance is essential to airport security.

After a summer 2001 survey of ground-based employees of airlines, airport-service firms and concessionaires with almost 30,000 workers, researchers concluded that:

Turnover of screeners at San Francisco International Airport dropped from 110 percent to 25 percent. (The federal General Accounting Office has cited higher turnover of airport screeners as a principal cause of security breaches. At Boston’s Logan Airport, turnover rate reached 200 percent in 1998, which means the average screener had been on the job for three months.)

Employers reported improvements in overall job performance and greater ease in recruiting more skilled applicants.

Employers reported reduced absenteeism, fewer disciplinary problems and higher morale.

The cost of the San Francisco quality standards program works out to $1.37 per passenger traveling through the airport.

“These findings imply that a policy of replacing all airport screeners with federal security personnel runs the risk of being too narrowly focused,” the report concluded. “One of the main advantages of the SFO program is the breadth of its impact. By linking wage improvements to training and accreditation programs, the program has gone a long way to improving morale and performance across the entire airport.”


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