Passengers back to long lines at Great Falls airport

by Great Falls Tribune

Frequent business flyer Jon Ambuehl has noticed it’s been taking longer to clear through security at Great Falls International Airport during the last year, particularly the last couple of months, and wondered why.

Ambuehl, 49, works in sales for a national company and flies out of Great Falls nearly every week, mostly to the West Coast but sometimes to the East Coast.

“The flights are somewhat limited in Great Falls, but have been good enough,” he said.

But while it used to average less than 10 minutes to clear through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at the Great Falls airport for his early morning flights, it now takes an exasperating 25 to 35 minutes, he said.

“It never takes more than 10 to 15 minutes for me to clear security at bigger airports,” said Ambuehl, who has expedited pre-check clearance.

“When the Great Falls Airport Authority expanded the terminal building a few years ago, it was supposed to expand and centralize the checkpoint point so passengers could get through faster, but it’s not happening lately,” Ambuehl said. “A lot of money was spent to make the airport run more smoothly, but it seems that TSA and the government aren’t holding up to their end of the bargain.”

Great Falls Airport Director John Faulkner said he understands Ambuehl’s frustration, because security clearance is taking more time, as long as 27 minutes, even after passengers have gotten their tickets and boarding passes.

It’s worse early mornings and some afternoons when as many as four airline’s flights with 320 seats depart within a short time. Two weekends ago, several passengers missed flights and were so upset that airport security officers tried to calm them down, he said.

When the line stretches 90 feet across the lobby waiting to get to the TSA checkpoint, Faulkner figures the end passengers might have a 15-minute wait. But on busy days, when the line doubles back against itself, he estimates the end passengers might have to wait 25 minutes or longer for security clearance. Such passengers could be cutting it close in making their flight times.

“I feel really bad for those folks who miss flights because of longer security checks just a few years after the airport spent $7 million in part to expand the checkpoint,” Faulkner said. “But they have to take some responsibility in arriving early enough.”

While he once recommended Great Falls passengers get to the airport at least 90 minutes before their flights to get tickets and clear security, especially during busy summer and holiday flying seasons, he now is recommending they arrive at least two hours early during those busy times.

Local TSA agents are doing a good job with the equipment they are given and customer service actually has improved in the past five years at the checkpoint, Faulkner stressed. He believes problems at the national level are causing the delays.

Part of it involves the TSA blocking small and midsize airports from getting the body-imaging or full-body scanners, Faulkner said.

In addition, TSA has announced it has stepped up security measures the last few months, which it has said will slow the lines for security checks alone at some bigger airlines to as long as two hours during busy summer travel, he said.

The TSA also has centralized its training for new agents, who once were trained in individual states, which Faulkner said makes it more expensive and slower for local airports to get needed additional agents.

Regional TSA spokeswoman Loris Dankers said the increased wait time at the Great Falls airport is not unique. “There are increases at various airports nationwide,” she said, adding that TSA “is focused on security and resolving any threat to the aviation system.”

“We recognize that longer-than-normal wait times at security checkpoints are a concern for travelers,” according to a TSA statement. “The recent increases are caused by rapid growth in travel volume, combined with a renewed emphasis on rigorous screening following national testing that showed unacceptable results. TSA remains focused on security and that is our most important obligation to the public.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has grilled TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson during congressional committee hearings in the last two weeks, asking why the smaller airports in Great Falls and Helena can’t receive the modern full-body scanners.

Neffenger said he would like to deploy the full-body scanners at airports across the country, but budget constraints make it necessary for TSA to prioritize urban airports over smaller airports.

“My neighbors need to fly safely, too,” Tester told the TSA chief two weeks ago. “And just because we live in a rural state like Montana doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have these scanners.

“(Great Falls and Helena) are big airports for Montana, even if they’re small compared to Dulles or O’Hare,” he told Neffenger’s boss, Johnson, last week. “It’s critically important that we put forth the same level of security at all the nation’s airports.”

Faulkner agreed, for three reasons: security, quicker security checks and fewer invasive body pat downs.

A TSA report early this month called the full-body scanners “the most effective and least intrusive” way to search travelers for weapons hidden under their clothes.

“If TSA agrees full body scanners provide the best security, then they’re just opening the whole commercial flight system up to vulnerability if they don’t provide them to all commercial airports,” Faulkner said.

That’s because once passengers clear security at a smaller airport, they don’t have to go through security again on their outward itinerary that day, even at large urban airports with tighter, more elaborate security, he said. For instance, a passenger heading to Washington, D.C., from Great Falls would be cleared here, but not at the Minneapolis or Washington airports.

Great Falls and Helena have walk-through metal detectors, but no full-body scanners. When the metal detectors sound, TSA agents must stop what they’re doing and do body pat downs on the passengers, which slows the lines.

Great Falls and Helena have a large number of older passengers with artificial knees and hips and other metal inserts who must go through hand pat downs each time they fly here, which many passengers consider intrusive, Faulkner and Jeff Wadekamper, Helena Airport director, said.

Faulkner said TSA agents had to do 30 pat-downs for one 140-passenger flight out of Great Falls last week. He said Great Falls agents told him they’re so busy with the pat-downs that they often don’t use both of the X-ray machines to check carry-on luggage. Frequent flyer Ambuehl thinks failing to use both X-ray machines is a major reason for security check delays during busy times.

While the first body scanners gave TSA agents explicit views of the people being scanned, modern versions show the body as a cartoon, Gumby-like figure that is far less invasive than body pat-downs, Wadekamper said.

Great Falls background

The Great Falls Airport Authority spent $7 million on a 500-day construction project completed in late October 2013 to expand the terminal’s secured area by 10,000 square feet.

The expansion created more bathrooms, a bar, gift shop and ample waiting areas beyond security for passengers waiting to take off, Faulkner said, but the key last factor spurring the airport authority to go ahead was improving security clearance.

Before the construction, TSA officials said airports would have to incorporate full-body scanners into their checkpoints, he said, and the Great Falls airport, which then had security checkpoints at two ends of the building, didn’t have room.

In designing the changes, the Great Falls airport incorporated TSA’s preferred layout that included lanes for both a walk-through metal detector and a full-body scanner. The larger, centralized checkpoint is 1,000 feet, with more space for TSA and passengers to operate in.

But about a month before the construction was completed on the new Great Falls checkpoint, TSA announced it would no longer deploy full-body scanners after all at airports with fewer than 250,000 boardings a year. So the Great Falls airport, which has grown to about 190,000 boardings, never got the full-body scanner.

The Helena Airport had completed terminal improvements in the spring of 2013, spending about $150,000 alone to accommodate a full body scanner, Wadekamper said. It was removed that fall, leaving the Capital City airport with a single, walk-through metal detector.

Meanwhile, TSA agents at the newly expanded Great Falls terminal operated with two walk-through metal detectors for about 14 months until the agency abruptly decided to remove one of them in mid-December 2014, in the heart of the busier holiday traffic.

“TSA officials said the Great Falls airport only needed one such detector to screen the peak hourly volume we had, and apparently reduced use of the detectors nationally because of cost,” Faulkner said. “We were told our second metal detector was sent to a warehouse.

“If they already had the equipment here, why not use it?” Faulkner asked. “What’s the point of paying to ship it to a warehouse?”

Faulkner said the Great Falls clearance checks are longest when three or four airlines have outgoing flights at similar times, including early mornings and a few mid-afternoons a week. With TSA doubling down on security, as the agency has said it is now doing, it’s hard to predict how long delays will be, he said, especially since some flights might have more passengers with metal limbs who need special TSA attention than others.

Wadekamper said security clearance “has been OK, but not great” at the Helena airport since the full-body scanner was removed more than two years ago.

“We sat down with local TSA and airline staff and came up with ways to keep passenger flow moving as well as we can,” he said. “Our longest delays for security clearance are about 10 to 15 minutes, but our flights are spread throughout the day more than those at the Great Falls airport, which are bunched up.”

Still, Wadekamper said Helena might have longer waits this summer when Alaska Airlines adds another flight.