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Montana Airport to Privatize Security Screening

10/21/2009 -Glacier Park International Airport in Montana has decided to opt out of federal security screening by privatizing its security workforce after experiencing staffing and customer service problems,according to Daily Inter

The airport—which is advertised as a gateway to Glacier National Park, Northwest Montana, and the Canadian Rockies—first looked into privatization in the fall of 2007 after experiencing staffing and customer service problems, especially during its busy summer tourist season.

In July, Glacier Park International Airport Authority Board finally applied to theTransportation Security Administration's (TSA) Screening Partnership Program (SPP). The program, which began in November 2004, allows airports to choose a qualified private contractor to provide security with federal oversight if TSA grants their request. According to the TSA's Web site, the program combines "private-sector operational expertise with TSA's technology, experience, and resources."

But problems could be lurking just around the corner for the airport, Dwayne Baird, a regional spokesman for TSA, told the paper.

... the agency requires that the private contractors maintain the same standards of security and the same benefits for employees during the duration of the contract .... Baird said that screeners lose their certification after 90 days off the job, and he wondered whether a private contractor, which would be increasing and decreasing staff as need arose, would employ workers often enough to maintain certification.

"The problem is maintaining a security force that maintains their certification and their training," Baird said. "If you have someone who goes off to run a ski lift, are they going to be as sharp?"

Another problem could be cost. A Government Accountability Office report, referenced by the paper, said private screeners could cost about 17 percent more than their TSA equivalents, although recent SPP participating airports have renegotiated contracts with private contractors that amount to only a 2.7 percent increase in cost.

One contractor vying for the Glacier Park International Airport contract said his company could keep down costs by limiting overtime and bringing more flexibility to staffing.

Despite these possible problems, the airport told the paper that it was wasn't budging from its decision to go with private passenger and baggage security screeners.

Airport Director Cindi Martin wasn't too worried if private screeners cost more. "We get flexibility and staffing. All facilities used efficiently. The airplanes are on time. Quite frankly, 17 percent is not a big number," she said.

The board's decision could make it one of the very few airports nationally that use private security screeners. The Daily Inter Lake reports that 15 of the nation's 450 airports currently use private security screeners.

The airport now awaits the TSA's decision. As the agency'sWeb site states, an "application does not guarantee the requesting airport that a contract for private security screening will be awarded." 

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♦ Photo of airport screening line by paulswansen/Flickr