Staffing drives airport’s quest to privatize

Posted: Saturday, October 24, 2009 2:00 am | Updated: .

By LYNNETTE HINTZE/Daily Inter Lake | 4 comments

The Glacier Park International Airport Board's decision to move forward with privatizing the airport's security force boils down to one overriding goal: having enough staff at peak times so passengers don't have to wait in line for exorbitant amounts of time.

Adequate staffing is the engine that drives the entire airline industry, Airport Director Cindi Martin said. Delays in security screening of air passengers and baggage at one airport can cause a ripple effect throughout the entire system that costs airlines money and makes passengers unhappy.

It's the Transportation Security Administration that decides how many federal security employees airports get, and when TSA consistently kept cutting the number of workers allotted to Glacier Park International, Martin said she and the board decided it was time to explore privatization.

"Since TSA has been at this airport, staffing has been reduced every year," Martin said.

In spring 2008, TSA's Staffing Allocation Model - the federal process used to identify the optimal screener staffing levels for an airport - cut Glacier airport's work force in half.

"And we were already struggling," Martin said, adding that security delays were an ongoing issue even before she arrived on the job in August 2006.

In monthly meetings with airline station managers and the deputy federal security director, Martin said she always asked: "What's working and what can we do better?" Security delays were a recurring problem and Martin said she periodically has gotten complaints from passengers about wait times, even though the long lines are intermittent.

The airport expanded its screening area two years ago.

"We gained a lot of efficiencies," she said. But if there aren't enough employees to operate both lines, it's a problem.

Martin met with agency officials in Washington, D.C., and quizzed them about why the staffing model so drastically cut the Glacier work force. While TSA wouldn't share specific numbers with Martin, she learned that the agency had calculated Glacier's allotment in October, typically a quiet month at the airport.

She coaxed TSA officials to "revisit the numbers" and although the agency did increase the staff allotment, it was still lower than the year before, she said.

Martin scrambled to get a few National Deployment Officers to ease the staffing shortfall last summer, but at that point the handwriting was on the wall.

"We didn't want to fight Washington, D.C., every year," Martin said. "This particular year our staffing is quite high and ironically Bozeman, which has been growing, was cut" in its staffing allotment.

A private contractor can train and hire workers more quickly and brings much more flexibility to the table, she said.

The decision to privatize the security force has nothing to do with the quality of screeners at Glacier Park International, Martin stressed.

"We've never suggested that TSOs (Transportation Security Officers) here lack training or have compromised safety in any way," she said.

ONCE AN airport joins the Screening Partnership Program, federal screening positions there are abolished. But Program Manager Ray Williams, who participated in a telephone conference call with the airport board and concerned TSA workers on Monday, emphasized that private contractors have to pay wages and benefits comparable to what security workers presently are earning.

At some airports that have converted to private contractors, 100 percent of the TSA work force has been rehired by the private firm, Martin said.

"This is a contract between TSA and the private contractor," Martin said. "Employees have to be held to the same standards."

Some TSA workers with concerns about job security pointed to a Government Accountability Office review of a TSA study that found privatized screening at Screening Partnership Program airports cost about 17.4 percent more to operate than airports with federal screeners.

"Seventeen percent is not a valid number," Williams said, explaining that since that report was done some private contracts have been renegotiated. Now the average cost for privatized security is about 2.7 percent higher.

Martin concurred, and said the GAO's report has been misinterpreted by some. Moreover, workers' compensation premiums and payouts are a big cost factor, and if one airport has unusually high payouts, it bumps the average cost up, Martin said, noting that several airports actually have saved money by privatizing security.

"This [privatization] is not being done at the expense of taxpayers," Martin said. "We're stewards of the public trust."

The GAO noted in its review that "TSA should not use the study as sole support for major policy decisions regarding the Screening Partnership Program." The agency further recommended that TSA revise its study to address methodological limitations.

Glacier Park International's application to use private screeners was received by the TSA Screening Partnership program this week. It's unknown how long the process will take, Martin said.

In August, seven smaller Eastern Montana airports - Sidney, Miles City, Glendive, Wolf Point, Havre, Lewistown and Glasgow - went to private screening. Butte and West Yellowstone have applications pending.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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