During the height of last month's holiday travel season and a week before an alleged al-Qaeda operative attempted to bomb an international flight traveling to Detroit, officials in Bozeman witnessed a similar security breakdown. A Montana man unknowingly cleared through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints at Gallatin Field Airport with a handgun in his carry-on bag. Once he realized the error, the man turned himself in, prompting authorities to re-screen every passenger, including those already aboard a plane slated to take off.
The TSA didn't publicly acknowledge the Bozeman incident until last week, and officials say that sort of delayed communication—not to mention the security breach itself—is why airports across the state are poised to replace government screeners with private contractors.
"Local control is certainly more responsive than a federal agency that is headquartered in Washington, D.C.," says Cris Jensen, director of the Missoula International Airport. "And so, we think there's some benefit to having [local management] here."
Jensen says he put the wheels in motion to replace federal security with private contractors months ago. He says the move will improve communication, responsiveness and efficiency. If all goes as planned, the change will happen by the end of 2010.
"September of this year would be the earliest opportunity," he says.
Congress created the TSA after 9/11 as part of the Department of Homeland Security. When the new agency took over, thousands of airport screeners became federal employees, gaining all of the benefits that go along with being a government worker.
But an opt-out clause in the original legislation opens the door for airport managers to hire private firms to replace TSA screeners. So far, 19 airports across the country have done so, including seven in eastern Montana. With airports in Missoula, West Yellowstone, Kalispell and Butte also primed to make the switch, Montana appears to be leading the airport security privatization movement.
Last month's incident in Bozeman is just the most recent example of the frustration airports face with TSA. Long-time Gallatin Airport Authority board member Richard Roehm says local officials wanted to notify the public immediately of the problem, but red tape prevented any full disclosure.
"Nobody from the TSA was available," he says. "It was either no response or we can't issue anything until it's cleared by Washington."
In an interview with the Independent, TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird says policy mandates the agency not comment on active investigations. He adds that the TSA employee responsible for the Gallatin Field breach was reprimanded and sent back for remedial training.
Roehm, a former colonel in the armed forces, says he understands security specifics sometimes need to stay under wraps to better ensure safety. But he maintains TSA takes it too far.
"TSA wraps itself in a cloak of security and says, 'We can't discuss it,'" he says. "The public needs a greater transparency in all of this stuff."
Communication is just one drawback with TSA. Jensen says the agency's sprawling bureaucracy is too cumbersome, tough to navigate and expensive.
"People have lots of examples with lots of federal agencies about the inefficiencies just due to the size," he says. "I'm not talking necessarily about just the screening of passengers. I'm talking about the management of the operation and things of that nature, some of the overhead, some of the other expenses that are related to operating. So, there's a substantial amount of money we believe that can be saved."
The financial impact of a switch worries the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents TSA employees across the country. The union believes private industry will rely on fewer employees to do more work, leaving American airports less protected. AFGE representatives are lobbying Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's staff to ask for a moratorium on any more privatization.
"For profit means you always cut corners," says AFGE's Tim Shorrock.
If an airport privatizes its security, local management is legally obligated to offer existing screeners work with the same benefits and pay. But Shorrock says private companies can eventually cut salaries and, inevitably, lure cheaper, less qualified labor.
"This is our line of protection here in the U.S.," he says. "We want well-trained, efficient government workers...not the lowest common denominator."
Jensen disagrees, pointing to what he maintains are thriving and efficient private security enterprises at airports in San Francisco, Jackson Hole and Kansas City. He says if Missoula goes private, training and staff would remain nearly identical, and passengers would notice little difference. In addition, TSA would maintain regulatory oversight.
"My family flies. My friends fly. If I thought for a moment that it was going to be substandard, we would never consider this," Jensen says. "In fact, I believe just the opposite—it's every bit as good and potentially even better. A lot of that just comes from the local control."
Three companies have submitted proposals to the Missoula County Airport Authority Board so far: Firstline Transpor-tation Security, Covenant Aviation Security and McNeil Security. Jensen says the board may select a proposal during its Jan. 26 board meeting, setting into motion a long application process to officially drop the TSA.