TSA should improve state airport security equipment

by Great Falls Tribune (Editorial)

Airports in Great Falls and Helena lack modern scanning equipment at security checkpoints, and it’s causing trouble for air passengers trying to leave those cities. Lines of passengers waiting to clear security have mushroomed in Great Falls, especially in the last few months, and are expected to grow in the Capital City this summer.

Both airports, in Great Falls and Helena, spent money to accommodate improved security equipment, but both had equipment removed by the Transportation Security Administration since 2013 for not enough use. Helena received a full-body scanner in 2013, but TSA removed the scanner in the fall. Great Falls has yet to receive a full-body scanner but had two metal detectors through the end of 2014. Then TSA abruptly removed one of the detectors in December 2014 and sent it to a warehouse, contributing to security line delays in Great Falls.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., grilled TSA officials recently at a hearing, arguing inadequate equipment is not good for either Montanans or other air passengers around the country.

“My neighbors need to fly safely, too,” Tester told TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger. “It’s critically important that we put forth the same level of security at all the nation’s airports.”

TSA’s response was its budget doesn’t allow more sophisticated scanners at smaller airports. According to TSA, scanners are provided to airports with annual boardings of 250,000; Great Falls has grown to 190,000 boardings but doesn’t yet meet the standard, and Helena’s airport has fewer boardings than Great Falls has.

We believe it’s important to have up-to-date security apparatus in central Montana’s largest airports, and we’d like the state’s full congressional delegation to advocate for lowering the number of boardings required to qualify for a full-body scanner. In the least, TSA could bring back the extra metal detector to Great Falls to help speed things up a bit before a full-body scanner is provided.

We strongly support upgrading equipment in the Great Falls and Helena airports.

In Great Falls, Airport Director John Faulkner says when a security line stretches 90 feet across the airport lobby, passengers can expect a 15-minute wait to get through security. But at busier times, clearing security may take as long as 27 minutes. Great Falls once again is seeing incidents of passengers not making their flights and getting angry about it.

Under current circumstances, passengers need to get to the Great Falls airport sooner. Where Faulkner once advised passengers to arrive at the airport 90 minutes ahead of time, now he’s recommending getting to the airport two hours before a flight takes off.

“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 told the Tribune’s Peter Johnson. “But they have to take some responsibility in arriving early enough.”

Other factors come into play here. Montanans are older than average, with joint replacements, so they set off metal detectors and require many pat-downs that slow down TSA agents. A full-body scanner would sharply reduce the need for pat-downs. By the way, Faulkner believes TSA agents in Great Falls are doing a good job given equipment limitations.

With news stories about dangerous-looking items clearing airport security, and terrorist threats, TSA is trying to be more thorough checking carry-ons and other items being taken into airplane cabins.

It’s a shame to take a step backward with long lines at Montana airports. Passengers should get to the terminal earlier, and our people in Congress should work to allocate more money so proper equipment is used at Montana’s urban airports.