Montana leaders call for delay in airport security mandate

TSA Checkpoint
Posted at 6:40 PM, Aug 29, 2023

HELENA — When a passenger comes to the airport, they’re used to going through the screening procedure at the TSA checkpoint. Now, the TSA is proposing a new rule aimed at requiring additional screening for airport employees working in secured areas – but some leaders are raising concerns about the burden it could place on Montana airports.

The TSA introduced a “national amendment” in April, set to take effect Sept. 25. It will require some airports to begin doing random screenings on their employees when they go into secured areas.

“TSA values its partnerships with all transportation industry stakeholders and the work we do together to ensure the secure movement of people and commerce,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement. “In order to improve transportation security, TSA issued a national amendment requiring certain airport operators to conduct enhanced aviation worker screening. These new requirements will complement the work done by TSA to screen individuals with access to secured and sterile areas of airports across the country.”

TSA says the change is intended to address ongoing concerns about airport access and is in line with recommendations from their security partners. While not every employee would be screened every day, the goal would be to deter employees from bringing unauthorized items into secure areas.

However, the proposal gave some Montana airport leaders pause, because it would place the new screening responsibility on the airport operator, not the TSA.

“We're very much in support of ensuring the airport and aviation system is secure, but we just don't feel like the airport operator is the one to do this,” said Helena Regional Airport director Jeff Wadekamper. “We feel that that’s what TSA was created to do.”

Wadekamper says, when Montana airport managers learned about the rule, they had concerns about the cost and the logistics.

“That gets challenging because then you have to set up a separate checkpoint, if you will, and require separate equipment and staff to do that screening,” he said.

At this point, Wadekamper said the requirement would only apply to airports with more than 250,000 boarding passengers per year. That would include Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Missoula Montana Airport and Billings-Logan International Airport. It would not cover Helena Regional Airport, Great Falls International Airport or Bert Mooney Airport in Butte.

However, Wadekamper said they have looked into what it would take to implement the mandate in Helena, and he estimated it could cost up to $500,000 a year if they have to comply in the future.

“A lot of times that's how our regulatory requirements work – sometimes they'll try it, they'll initially do it at the busier, bigger airports, and then ultimately, over time, it trickles down to encompass everybody,” he said. “So we're definitely looking at it.”

TSA says they have worked with airport operators and other stakeholders as they put the amendment together, and that they made changes in response to the comments they received.

Montana’s congressional delegation has been pushing back against the proposed rule. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines, along with Republican Reps. Matt Rosendale and Ryan Zinke have all signed on to letters urging the TSA to either delay implementation for at least a year or withdraw the amendment.

“Our airports association here within Montana – all of us together reached out and lobbied all of our congressional folks for help, and they've really stepped up and helped with this issue,” Wadekamper said.