More airports question feds on security | AspenTimes.com

More airports question feds on security

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A growing number of communities around the nation are having difficulty with next week’s deadline for replacing soldiers with local cops at airport security checkpoints, a federal official said.

The difficulties have so far been limited to small airports such as Aspen’s, but the threat of shutdowns at facilities that fail to meet the deadline may end up disrupting commencement ceremonies at Wyoming’s largest university.

Transportation Security Administration spokesman Paul Turk said Wednesday that jurisdictions around the country have joined the ranks of Pitkin County by saying they have neither the money nor the manpower necessary to comply with the TSA directive on airport security.

Issued April 1, the directive orders airports to replace National Guard troops who have been manning airport checkpoints with local police officers by May 10. The airports and the local governments that run them are expected to pay the cost of future security out of their own budgets, although the directive states that the TSA will provide partial reimbursement if Congress appropriates the money. Turk said Congress has yet to set that money aside.

On April 24, Pitkin County became the first community in the nation to openly reject the directive. The commissioners voted against signing a memorandum of agreement with the TSA that formally transfers responsibility for airport security from the federal to local level.

Pitkin County officials say the TSA has them asked for a letter outlining the reasons compliance is so difficult, and they are hopeful something can be worked out before National Guard troops are withdrawn. Jim Elwood, director of the Pitkin County airport, said it appears the TSA is making a good faith effort to deal with the county.

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The directive has caused few problems at major or midsize airports – Denver, for example – that have their own police departments, but facilities that must rely on city police or county deputies are having more trouble.

Turk said the same issues that are a problem here are coming up in other communities similar or smaller in size to Aspen.

“We’re hearing a little of both: Where are we going to find the people? Or, how are we supposed to pay for it?” he said.

Laramie, Wyo., is one such community. Jack Skinner, director of the Laramie Regional Airport, said both the Albany County Sheriff’s Department and the city of Laramie Police Department are currently short-staffed and have indicated that they will have difficulty providing security at the airport.

Skinner said the week following the changeover is expected to be busy at the Laramie airport, because commencement at the nearby University of Wyoming is scheduled for May 18. Laramie Regional Airport is served by Great Lakes Airlines with three flights each day.

“If nothing works out this week, something is going to have to give next week,” Skinner said.

A spokesman for the University of Wyoming said a large number of the families and friends who fly in for commencement arrive in Denver and rent a car, so he’s not sure what effect closing the Laramie airport would have. He said university officials are only beginning to look at the possibility that the Laramie airport could close.

Durango is having similar difficulties. The county airport director said that the Durango Police Department and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Department are short 10 officers, so there is little hope of finding qualified law-enforcement officers to staff the airport’s lone security checkpoint.

Turk said the directive has the force of law and that his agency has the option to shut down facilities that are not in compliance. He declined, however, to say whether unguarded airports will be shut down.

Last week, a TSA official, speaking to The Aspen Times on condition of anonymity, said the federal government would have little choice but to close airports with unguarded security checkpoints.

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