Local screeners worried about jobs, pay

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Local federal security workers have more questions than answers since the Glacier Park International Airport Authority Board decided to privatize the airport security force.

Eric Wood, who works security at the airport and stressed that his views are his own and not that of the Transportation Security Administration or the federal government, worries that privatizing the security force will cost the airport more money.

"To try to increase and add an extra layer of bureaucracy, it seems ludicrous in this economy," Wood said. "Dollar for dollar, it's going to cost you [the taxpayer] more money and you're not going to get a better product."

Additionally, the local security force is worried about lost benefits and lowered pay if a private firm takes over the security force.

"We're concerned about our jobs, our seniority, our benefits," Wood said. "We're more concerned watching our tax dollars get wasted."

On Nov. 19, 2002, in accordance with the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, TSA began a two-year pilot program at five airports using private companies to screen passengers and checked baggage. The law mandated that the federal security agency allow airports to request that screening be conducted by private screeners in lieu of federal screeners.

In November 2004, the TSA created the Screening Partnership Program to allow all commercial airports an opportunity to apply to use private security screeners. So far, 15 of 450 airports across the nation have opted to privatize.

Airport Director Cindi Martin said Glacier Park International has applied to privatize because what TSA offers the airport is not meeting its needs.

"We've had a fair share of complaints about customer service and wait times," Martin said. "If we don't have adequate staffing, it frustrates travelers. This is an ongoing problem with TSA nationwide."

Because the airport has seasonal peaks, TSA dispatches "national deployment officers" so the security lines have more staff and are more efficient. These are volunteer positions and their presence does not cost the airport any extra money, save what it already pays for law enforcement. If Glacier Park International opts out of a federal screener staff, it will no longer qualify for deployment officers.

However, Martin argues that the government would not allow an inefficient program to exist

"If the government feels the program is more expensive, why is it still running?" she asked. "The TSA was created as a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11. They've been fixing the system as they go along. It's been tweaked and tweaked and tweaked."

The federal government pays for security screening whether it's privatized or operated through the Transportation Security Administration. Some airports using private screeners pay about 2.7 percent more for security since they renegotiated contracts, according to Ray Williams, Screening Partnership Program manager in Washington, D.C.

DWAYNE BAIRD, a regional spokesman for TSA, said the decision to privatize is up to each airport, but the agency requires that the private contractors maintain the same standards of security and the same benefits for employees during the duration of the contract.

However, Baird said that TSA is already an efficient program.

"Our [national deployment officer] program is as flexible as it gets," Baird said. "People volunteer to work in the NDO program. The airport doesn't pay for anything."

Baird said that screeners lose their certification after 90 days off the job, and he wondered whether a private contractor, which would be increasing and decreasing staff as need arose, would employ workers often enough to maintain certification.

"The problem is maintaining a security force that maintains their certification and their training," Baird said. "If you have someone who goes off to run a ski lift, are they going to be as sharp?"

THE SCREENERS at Glacier Park International are not convinced that a private force would be more efficient.

Chris Inabnit, a screener at the airport, said that a private force is simply adding another layer of bureaucracy.

"If our efficiency is in question, I would challenge anyone to compare GPIA's security force to any airport in the nation," Inabnit said. "We are most certainly not a low-performing security force. We've been number one in the state in recertification. Any delays are negligible."

Wood agreed.

"We haven't had complaints in over two years," he said. "We try to always be polite, always end it positive. TSA has to provide the opt-out option whether or not it's efficient."

Furthermore, the screeners worry that the public will not take a private security force seriously.

"Are they going to respect people they see as a rent-a-cop?" Inabnit asked. "Is the squeeze worth the juice? Is the gain worth the loss? [A private security force] is a profit-motivated industry. They are not motivated by providing security to the American populace."

Fellow screener Natalie Moore voiced similar concerns.

"We take our jobs very seriously," Moore said. "Is it still the same message, or will [a private company] make us cut corners?"

Moore said that screeners are asked to evaluate the jobs they are doing by deciding if they would feel safe getting on board the plane whose passengers they just screened. If they would not, then they haven't done their job. Still, the local security workers have many questions.

"We're not attacking management," Moore said. "We understand the reasons. [Cindi Martin is] allowed to do this. We're just trying to understand why."

Wood gave a final example by citing Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota, which has gone private and was not a pilot-program airport.

"In Sioux, since going private, [the screeners] have unionized," Wood said. "If they're so happy, why have they unionized? I don't have a beef with the [Glacier Park International Airport] director and the board. I don't agree with the policy they're going toward. Why is the airport so gung ho? We're left with rumors, supposition."

Reporter K.J. Hascall may be reached at 758-4439 or by e-mail at kjhascall@dailyinterlake.com

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