Airport to privatize security

Federal workers confront board

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Transportation Security Administration screener Richard Butterfield reviews travel documents for a passenger Friday at the security checkpoint in the Glacier Park International Airport terminal. The airport has applied to privatize its security screening force.

The Glacier Park International Airport Authority Board is sticking by its decision to privatize its airport security force, but took time on Tuesday to answer questions from local federal security workers who are worried about job security.

The board decided more than a year ago to apply to the Transportation Security Administration Screening Partnership Program to use a private contractor for security screening of air passengers and baggage, but waited until July this year to submit the application. The application still is being processed.

Airport Director Cindi Martin said the board began looking into privatization in fall 2007 when the airport was having staffing issues and customer service problems, particularly during the busy summer tourism season.

After exhaustive research, the board decided a private contractor can provide more flexibility in staffing and better customer service.

About a dozen of Glacier Park International's 33 federal TSA workers attended Tuesday's Airport Board meeting. Some wondered if they'll have to accept entry-level wages if they go to work for a private contractor.

Others questioned whether using multiple contractors to conduct airport screening across the country will lead to a more unified national strategy.

Ray Williams, Screening Partnership Program manager in Washington, D.C., who participated in the meeting via a conference telephone call, told TSA workers that private contractors have to pay wages comparable to what federal workers receive.

Private contractors also must conduct the same background checks and provide the same or better training than the federal government.

Ron Myers, a Columbia Falls training consultant who is a frequent flyer, said he's concerned about the level of security at the airport.

"I want to make sure this is being done for the right reasons," Myers said, asking if TSA deficiencies had been well-documented.

Williams said a pilot program using private contractors was set up in 2002 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; that program ended in 2004. Since November 2004, airport operators have been able to apply to the partnership program to use private screeners.

"The private program is well-established," Williams said.

But a relatively small number of airports have gone the private route. Only 15 of the nation's 450 airports use private contractors for security workers.

Myers added: "It seems like it's still a pilot program."

He also wondered how a private contractor is able to address the staffing-level issue without adding staff.

Brett Berry, regional director for Covenant, a private firm that's vying for the Glacier Park International contract, said private contractors are able to hold down overtime costs and can be more flexible with staffing.

Natalie Moore, a local TSA worker, asked if the board re-evaluated its decision at any point.

Martin said staffing and customer service remain areas of concern, but added "we've never questioned the security or job performance of any employee."

Board chairman Jim Trout said the application process is lengthy.

"It's the federal government. You don't do things overnight," Trout said. "At the time the decision was made there were concerns about customer service. We're sticking by our decision."

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com

Security screener Leah Hancock places a passenger's bag on the X-ray machine conveyor belt in the Glacier Park International Airport terminal on Friday afternoon.

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