Airport will remain open | AspenTimes.com

Airport will remain open

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Federal transportation officials revised new regulations on airport security yesterday in response to increasing pressure from both rural communities and Congress.

The Transportation Security Administration issued a security directive Wednesday that allows small airports like Pitkin County’s to replace National Guard troops with private security guards. The directive is meant to give small airports flexibility in meeting their security obligation, both in cost and manpower.

Prior to yesterday’s directive, every commercial airport in the nation was facing a May 10 deadline – set in an April 1 directive from the TSA – to replace National Guard troops with local law enforcement officers at their own expense.

Airport director Jim Elwood said the new directive will allow commercial operations at the airport to continue without disruption. County officials still weren’t sure in the middle of this week whether Sardy Field would be open Friday.

Elwood said commercial operations will be able to function as usual Friday morning. A sheriff’s deputy will be standing in at the airport’s sole security checkpoint where the National Guard troops have been for the past eight months. The deputies will be replaced with armed guards from a private security firm in the next month or two, Elwood said.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has been paying for the National Guard to man security checkpoints at airports. But when he mobilized the Guard last fall, President George W. Bush made it clear their presence would be temporary.

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Eventually, the TSA plans to install federal marshals at every security checkpoint in the nation’s commercial air system. But TSA officials say it may take as long as a year and a half to hire, train and install its own force. In the meantime, the TSA is requiring local communities to make their own security arrangements and cover at least some of the costs.

Pitkin County last month became the first jurisdiction in the nation to refuse to comply with the April 1 directive, citing both financial difficulties and a shortage of qualified officers. Rural communities around the country – including Durango – also declined to comply with the directive for the same reasons.

Negotiations between Pitkin County and the TSA reached an impass April 24, when the federal agency balked at the $75-an-hour price tag demanded by the sheriff’s office for security. The TSA and the county agreed yesterday to a reimbursement rate of $55 an hour until private security can be hired.

One TSA official told The Aspen Times that the original directive “has the force of law” and failure to comply may well result in the airport’s closure. But by early this week, the TSA was feeling pressure from Congressional delegations from states where small airports were having trouble making the switch, including Wyoming and Maine.

“Both senators and our congressman signed a letter to the TSA pointing out that Cody, Laramie and Riverton weren’t able to comply with the new regulations,” said Jack Skinner, director of the Laramie, Wyo., Regional Airport.

David Lackey, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said both of the state’s senators and one of its representatives contacted the TSA about the difficulty one small airport was having with the April 1 directive. Lackey said that airport, located in Trenton near Acadia National Park, is one of just six commercial facilities in his state.

TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O’Sullivan declined to answer questions about the new directive or an accompanying letter from Stephen J. McHale, the deputy under secretary of transportation.

A copy of the letter and security directive obtained by The Aspen Times indicates that the problem was widespread, however.

McHale’s letter, dated May 7 and addressed to airport directors, starts out by thanking the “overwhelming number” of airports that have been able to comply with the original security directive. “However,” he writes, “some smaller airports have indicated continuing difficulty in finding sufficient law enforcement officer resources.”

McHale reminds the airport directors that security of the system is everyone’s responsibility – airport operators and law enforcement organizations.

“You are a key part of this security, because you manage the ‘gateways’ to America’s aviation system,” the letter continues. “It is imperative that every airport operator work with the Transportation Security Administration to ensure a secure transition takes place by May 10, 2002. A ‘weak link’ in the system may jeopardize the entire system by allowing terrorists access to the nation’s airport sterile areas.”

Elwood said the security directive that came with McHale’s letter is essentially the same as the one issued on April 1, except for one section that gives small airports the choice of providing security with law enforcement officers or with armed private security guards.

Airports that opt for private security are required to have a response agreement with their local law enforcement agency that ensures an officer or deputy will be on the scene within minutes if circumstances require it. Sheriff Bob Braudis said the response agreement with the airport allows 10 minutes for a deputy to arrive; Skinner at Laramie Regional said the agreement there gives police 20 minutes to show up.

“We are very pleased to have worked out a resolution to this problem, while maintaining the quality of security at our airport,” Elwood said.

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