Screening at Montana’s smallest airports costs millions

A 2:17 p.m. flight last Tuesday from Miles City to Gillette and Denver illustrated the financial challenges of screening passengers and luggage at the country’s smallest airports to meet federal Homeland Security standards.

Two Great Lakes Airlines ticket agents and four Transportation Security Administration screeners prepared for the flight of the 19-seat Beechcraft.

All for 15-year-old Justin Ralston, the only passenger to board the plane.

Screening at the seven small airports that dot Eastern Montana will cost nearly $11 million over five years for planes that carry few passengers.

But Debbie Alke, administrator of the Montana Aeronautics Division in Helena, said there is no choice in this era of terrorism.

“Montana had the only airports in the country that didn’t have the TSA presence after 9/11, when it was mandated for all airports,” Alke said. “You’d hear from some people they weren’t comfortable flying to Billings without screening.”

Until March 8, 2008, when the now-defunct Big Sky Airlines stopped serving the state’s federally subsidized airports, passengers needed only a ticket to board a plane. Security checks waited until landing at larger airports like Billings.

“They’d have to get off the plane, take a bus to the front of the airport, get their bags and then go through the screening process to catch another flight,” Alke said.

But letting people hop on a plane unchecked, even in the tiny commercial airport of Wolf Point, doesn’t work anymore.

Last February, when Great Lakes started taking over the former Big Sky routes to Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Lewistown, Miles City, Sidney and Wolf Point, federal employees working for the federal TSA handled the screening. But in August, Trinity Technology Group, based in Fairfax, Va., won the federal contract and has been taking over from TSA employees. Last week, Trinity and a subcontractor, Covenant Aviation Security LLC, began screening at the last three cities of Glasgow, Havre and Wolf Point.

The seven airports are supported by federal subsidies under the Essential Air Service program because they serve rural areas where there aren’t enough customers for airlines to turn a profit. As Big Sky was going out of business in 2008, Great Lakes won the $8.5 million contract to fly the routes through January 2011.

“The (screener) uniforms look different, but the service is the same,” said Monica Taylor, Great Lakes director of sales and marketing. “They are still under the umbrella of TSA and have to meet all the requirements.”

Trinity now employs about 28 people in Montana, generally two women and two men, for face-to-face screenings seven days a week at each airport.

Critics of privatizing airline screening argue that the companies might be tempted to hire more part-time workers to shave costs, putting profits before security.

But William Scott, senior program manager for Trinity Technology Group, said that isn’t what’s happening with his company.

“I’ve tailored the work schedules to ensure the individuals are getting as many hours as we can facilitate for them. That gives the employees a better way of life,” he said from his Billings office.

For hardscrabble communities, the jobs pay well. Wages start at $14.30 an hour, and supervisors earn $22. Trinity pays 90 percent of the medical plan costs and kicks in a 5 percent match to employee 401(k) retirement plans. Full benefits start at 20 hours, making the jobs easy to fill in Montana, Scott said.

Sidney, perhaps the busiest airport of the seven, has four flights per day, so Trinity screeners are kept busy. In Butte, however, where there are two Delta Air Lines flights per day, full-time TSA screeners spend about two hours a day handing passengers, said Rick Griffith, director of Butte’s Bert Mooney Airport.

Still, it’s not the cost per passenger at small airports that matters most, Scott said. It’s the security of the whole U.S. system.

“What people fail to realize is these smaller airports are portals,” he said. “If a passenger gets on in Lewistown and isn’t screened properly, he’s then in Denver and he can get on an Airbus.”

In addition to accommodating screening personnel, the small airports have had to build screening facilities.

With the Federal Aviation Administration paying 90 percent of the costs, Wolf Point spent $398,100 to build an addition for screening. The space sat vacant for a year until Great Lakes resumed flying the Big Sky routes in early 2009.

Sidney had extra space and spent $45,000 to remodel it into a screening facility with a waiting room and a bathroom.

“If we don’t do the security that complements the whole system, we may as well not do it,” said Sidney-Richland County Airport Manager Director Bill Henderson.

How the most recent terrorist attack, the Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian man to set off a small explosive aboard a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit, will affect security procedures in Montana isn’t clear yet.

“We can’t comment on any increased security measures TSA has directed,” said Trinity’s Scott. “But, with the partnership between us, any TSA changes would be reflected in our operations.”

Generally, all airport screening in the U.S. is handled either by TSA or a private contractor.

However, some airports, such as Jackson Hole, Wyo., handle their own screening without a contractor.

And some airports in Western Montana want to try a hybrid model.

Butte, Missoula, Kalispell and West Yellowstone have asked the federal government’s permission to switch airport screening from TSA to a partnership between the public airport and a private company.

After checking out three or four contractors, Butte’s Griffith said his city decided to work with Covenant Aviation Security, which has an office in Anaconda.

“There are no airports that are offering a joint proposal,” Griffith said. “We are proposing that we be the first, but it’s TSA’s choice.”

However, the decision is being held up because Congress hasn’t approved a new director for TSA, he said. Cities, especially key tourism destinations, hope to gain more flexibility from private companies so they can schedule more screening during busy flight months. Cash-strapped cities also want a cut of the federal money awarded for screening.

Paying for airline travel and screening is no different in sparsely populated areas like Montana than building the interstate highway system half a century ago, Griffith said.

“If Billings wasn’t connected to Butte or wasn’t connected to Wyoming, it would be an independent, isolated community sitting out there,” Griffith said. “It takes the highways and airports to connect them.”

Scott served 26 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves, including tours in Iraq, and worked at TSA for seven years. As a security specialist, he said heightened checks aren’t going away.

“If you’re going to find the bad guys, it will be by person, not by machine,” Scott said. “This is a way of life. This is the way we’re going to do business.”

Contact Jan Falstad at [email protected] or 657-1306.

Airport screening starts

The final three of seven small Eastern Montana airports served by Great Lakes Airlines switched last week from having passengers and baggage screened by Transportation Security Administration to private screeners working for Trinity Technology Group.

• Sidney, Nov. 16, 2009

• Miles City, Nov. 22, 2009

• Glendive, Dec. 16, 2009

• Lewistown, Dec. 30, 2009

• Glasgow, Jan. 5, 2010

• Havre, Jan. 6, 2010

• Wolf Point, Jan. 7, 2010

Great Lakes passenger numbers in 2009

City Flights per week Passengers
Glasgow ** 14 1,148
Glendive ** 12 243
Havre ** 13 729
Lewistown 13 1,036
Miles City 20 891
Sidney * 26 2,766
Wolf Point ** 13 900

* All the planes are 19-seat Beechcraft, except in Sidney, which is served by 19-seat planes to Billings and 30-seat planes to Denver. On weekends, these cities generally have one flight per day. Some flights stop in more than one city.

** Great Lakes Airlines flew to these cities for 11 months in 2009. The other cities had service for all 12 months.

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