Security breach raises questions about government airport screening

A passenger getting through security at Gallatin Field with a gun, coupled with ongoing complaints about how passengers are treated at checkpoints, is trying the patience of the head of the local airport authority.

Now, Dick Roehm is raising the prospect turning to a private company to handle security at the airport.

On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 13, Transportation Security Administration screeners at Gallatin Field inadvertently allowed a man with a firearm in his carry-on bag through security, according to a TSA statement released Wednesday.

While in the boarding area, the unidentified man realized he had the gun and turned himself into TSA officials. In response, TSA rescreened every passenger at the airport, including passengers on a Horizon Air flight that had left the gate but not yet taken off, delaying three flights for more than an hour, said Roehm, who was briefed on the incident.

The gun was turned over to local law enforcement and the passenger was allowed to continue on the flight, TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird said in a written statement.

Dealing with security is one of the most common complaints Roehm hears about the airport, he said, and the breach only added to his frustration.

“How can someone get through the checkpoint with a firearm when I have to take off my belt?” Roehm asked Wednesday.

While no formal motions have been made to contract security out, and none are planned for the airport authority’s regular meeting today, Roehm said he wants the idea explored.

Roehm is not alone in his frustration. Several other airports in the state are looking into to hiring private firms to handle security instead of TSA, which is allowed under the federal act that created TSA. As reported by the Montana Standard in December, airport directors in Butte, Missoula and Kalispell are all considering going with a private firm to handle security, citing inefficiencies that come with working with a government bureaucracy.

Airport Director Brian Sprenger Wednesday said he wants to see how private security works at other airports in Montana before putting anything in at Gallatin Field.

“We’re watching what’s happening with them,” he said. “It’s something that we would watch closely to see how effective it is. Our biggest concern is a safe environment for our traveling public.”

Roehm said his problems with TSA have ranged from rude employees to having trouble getting information from the agency.

“I want to make it clear to the TSA that if (they) don’t start being courteous, we’ll start looking for alternatives,” Roehm said.

“If those guys can’t detect a handgun, which is pretty basic, not some exotic explosive sewn to your underpants, then we get upset,” he said.

However, as more airports are looking toward privatizing airport security, some are urging caution.

Jim McGarvey, executive secretary for Montana AFL-CIO, said privatizing airport security could cost good jobs in the community and gives security a profit motive.

“We see it everywhere: When you privative, you’re cutting out good salaries, and in this case safety, so private companies can maximize their profits,” he said.

McGarvey recently wrote and op-ed published in several papers expounding on that idea.

“Our taxpayer dollars fund airport security. Information indicates that private corporations interested in contracting this work will maintain the same budget level but will do so for the purpose of turning a profit, which means fewer employees, less training and lesser employee benefit programs like pensions and health care coverage,” he wrote.

Daniel Person can be reached at [email protected] or 582-2665.

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