TSA security not expected at 7 airports

The airports are in Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Lewistown, Miles City, Sidney and Wolf Point.

The TSA had been working with Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., on the possibility of putting federal screeners at those airports, "but the resources just aren't there," said TSA spokeswoman Jennifer Peppin.

"Essentially that's kind of what's coming out of this," she said of the Senate measure. "The security plan is another way to establish another more convenient process without actually federalizing the airports with federal screeners."

Before the TSA decision became known, airport managers from several of the Montana airports said they have been left in the dark by TSA as to when security screenings might be implemented. Peppin explained that the decision had just been made.

"This is new, so we haven't had any chance to work with the airports yet on anything like that," she said Friday. "Obviously this was just announced, so I can't imagine we've had a chance to talk about it (with the airports)."

Peppin said the federalization process starts with airports coming to the TSA with a request and submitting a plan for review. But the dollars aren't there in this case, she said. "This new security plan ... will take the place of that process," she said.

She said the TSA would look to involve the affected airports. "Being that's no longer going to be the course of action taken out there, we would certainly look at having them be part of this next process," she said.

Burns said only five other airports in the country do not have TSA screening.

He and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., inserted a provision in a Senate-passed port security bill that would require screening plans for all Essential Air Service airports in the country.

The TSA would have to submit to Congress a security plan including recommendations for improved security measures and for cargo and passenger screening along with a timeline and cost analysis for implementing such measures.

Currently, passengers are not screened before they board flights from the Montana airports. The flights all land in Billings. If the passengers are continuing on, they are bused to the front of the terminal and go through security screening at Billings Logan International Airport.

Senate and House negotiators must still hammer out a final version of the bill.

Bill Henderson, the Sidney airport director, had said earlier Friday that the TSA may begin a security program there within the year.

"We understand that we are in the budget for TSA to get into Sidney yet this year, so we're looking forward to that," he said.

Henderson said he and most passengers he's talked to would welcome a screening program there.

"They feel they're paying for it in their tickets anyway and they feel it would be much more convenient to transfer to the next airline in Billings without having to go through screening again there," he said.

Rick Isle, airport director in Wolf Point, said they have been left wondering what's next.

"It's probably a really good idea we get this laid out to us, because we're kind of in limbo hanging out here."

But he added that TSA should have acted much sooner.

"It probably should have been done by TSA a long time ago," he said. "When this first came out, somebody should have started giving somebody direction. ... All of us have asked those questions and never got an answer."

TSA will have waited too long on security measures if an incident occurs, he said.

"The bad thing is if you wanted to get on a plane in Wolf Point with something, you could. You could have come in from Canada and you could get on the plane and fly it into some place," he said. "We need to be prepared."

Construction is set to begin within the next two weeks on an airport extension in Wolf Point. The city and county decided to fund it because they realized they do not have enough space for security screening if the TSA decides to implement it quickly, Isle said.

"Nobody's telling us anything, but if they decide to do this in six weeks, six months, a year, we can't handle it, we can't do it because we don't have a place to put them," he said.

Jerry Moline, airport manager in Lewistown, said he is fine with the current system and does not know what TSA's alternatives would be.

"They've always had minimal security here as far as being questioned about what they might be carrying in their luggage," he said. "They are asked for ID, but there's no X-rays or anything like that."

Leon Baker, airport manager in Glendive, said TSA plans have been in the making for the past year but that he doesn't know where the agency is going with it. "When are things going to happen, what's the plan?" he asked.

Baucus said rural airports need to be kept secure just like urban facilities.

"I do not want our rural airports to become a back door for illegal activity," he said. "That's why I'm working to beef up security at Essential Air Service airports in Montana and across the country."

Burns said, "This is an unnecessary hassle for Montanans in these communities. ... We need a better system for these Montana airports and this is definitely a step in the right direction."

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