By Tim Trainor, Montana Standard | Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 12:00 am | (1) Comments
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BUTTE — Butte’s airport director, Rick Griffith, said a private security firm would improve efficiency, allow for better utilization of employees and provide the airport with another much needed revenue source.
Airports in Missoula, Kalispell and West Yellowstone are moving forward with similar plans of their own.
“Rick is kind of blazing the way,” said Cris Jensen, director of Missoula International Airport. “It hasn’t been tried, the way we are trying it, any place else.” Airports in Butte and Missoula are among the first to attempt to partner with a security company as they head toward privatization, hoping to share the profits of winning a federal contract.
To get that far has taken months, Griffith said, and their plan still must be confirmed by the Transportation Security Administration, then it must be sent out to bid, and the airport-private firm partnership has to be chosen.
“Every airport has the opportunity to opt out,” Griffith said. “We are just trying to play a more active role.” The TSA was formed shortly after 9/11 to increase security at airports across the nation. According to Cindi Martin, director of Kalispell’s Glacier Park International Airport, the creation of the TSA was a necessary reaction to the tragedy. But she said Congress knew even then that private companies could one day do this job.
“That was always the goal, and we are just moving toward that,” she said.
At her airport, business is very seasonal, and the number of employees provided by TSA is not.
“We need to be able to respond in the summer when our deployments triple,” she said. “Right now we can’t. We think a private firm will be more flexible to our needs.” If the privatization request is approved, the TSA would continue to oversee operations at each airport. It would continue to fund security services and make sure private employees go through the same training and meet the same standards as TSA employees across the country.
But that worries some current TSOs (transportation security officers), including Eric Wood, who has worked at the airport in Kalispell for more than seven years.
He said he initially took the job because he wanted to improve airline security, but also because he felt it would be a secure job with good benefits.
He worries that the privatization of his industry in Montana could endanger his career. “I can either stay here where I’ve lived my whole life and just hope I’m treated fairly by an out-of-state company, or I’ll have to move to Spokane or Seattle to keep my federal job,” Wood said.
TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird said if an airport decides to opt out, employees at the facility can be hired on by the private firm who wins the bid, or take another government position at a federalized facility.
He also said he feels more comfortable flying in and out of airports that have screeners employed by TSA than by a private company.
“TSA is in there providing security for security’s sake,” he said. “Do you want security by the lowest bidder?”
SAY THE’RE SAFE
Brett Berry is the Northwest regional director for Covenant Aviation Security LLC, a private Chicago-based company that employs more than 20,000 people nationwide. He works out of Anaconda, a branch that oversees operations at airports across the country including New York’s LaGuardia, one of the nation’s busiest.
Berry said the company would love to win contracts at airports in the area, such as Butte, Missoula, Kalispell and West Yellowstone.
“That would be great. We could definitely hire some more people here in Anaconda and in Butte,” he said. Berry said that possibly 20-40 employees could be hired in the two cities if Covenant secures the contracts.
Griffith said his inability to keep local workers employed as TSOs is one reason he wants to look to Covenant.
“Because of the hours, because most of the positions are part time, we do have a hard time keeping them filled,” Griffith said.
Many of the TSA employees who work in Butte end up being cycled in from other federal offices across the country.
Berry said his company could help change that, while still offering a comparable wage and benefit system — which would be required by law. TSA employees must be offered their positions and at least equal pay and benefit when an airport privatizes.
TSO Wood said he isn’t convinced that will happen. He thinks private firms will hire more part-time employees and try to cut full-time workers. He also worries that profits will head out of Montana to the headquarters of large corporations.
But Griffith disagrees. He said the privatization of security is “entrepreneurial” and shows the creative ways that airports are working to stay afloat and care for their customers.
“We are doing what we can,” Griffith said. “This is another way to keep our facilities viable, improve customer service and keep a high level of security.”
Reporter Tim Trainor may be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or by calling 496-5519.