Steamboat Springs Yampa Valley Regional Airport’s top official says security at airports across the country could suffer because sophisticated passenger screening machines are being poached from smaller airports like the one in Hayden and moved to larger ones.
Airport Manager Dave Ruppel and Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger also say the recent decision to relocate passenger screening machines could inconvenience passengers while also wasting taxpayer money.
Earlier this month Ruppel was contacted by the Transportation Security Administration and was told YVRA would have to give up its full-body scanning machine that was installed at the airport last ski season.
Workers arrived at the airport Tuesday afternoon to remove the machine made by L-3 Communications.
“It was gone this morning,” Ruppel said Wednesday, standing in the security area next to the spot where the machine used to be. Instead, TSA workers are conducting pat-downs on YVRA passengers and using an older walk-through metal detector.
Ruppel said his airport’s L-3 passenger scanning machine was moved presumably to a larger airport because of a decision by the federal government to pull all of the controversial Rapiscan Systems body scanning machines from airports across the country. The Rapiscan machines came under fire because they produce life-like images that many argue violate passengers’ privacy. The L-3 machines, on the other hand, produce cartoon-like images while highlighting specific body areas where a security risk might exist. According to TSA, both machines are designed to “enhance security by safely screening passengers for metallic and non-metallic threats — including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing.”
Federal lawmakers told Rapiscan officials they needed to come up with a software fix by June. But when it became clear Rapiscan woudn’t make that deadline, the TSA cancelled the contract and began pulling the company’s machines.
According to published media reports, 74 of the machines had been removed by late January but there were still another 174 Rapiscan machines in airports around the country.
Ruppel said up until Wednesday, nearly all passengers at YVRA were screened with the L-3 machine, which the TSA says passengers moved through in about 12 seconds. Without the machine, TSA screeners at YVRA are once again using walk-through metal detectors, metal-detecting wands and pat-downs of passengers.
“The metal detectors and the wands can only detect so much, so you go back to the customary pat-down procedure, which isn’t pleasant for TSA and the passengers,” Ruppel said.
Ruppel said he objects to the removal of his airport’s L-3 machine, particularly for the assumption that YVRA’s security checkpoint is somehow less critical than checkpoints at larger airports. Once passengers pass screening at YVRA they typically do not face additional screening for connecting flights at other airports.
“We’re damaging the system to fix part of the system,” Ruppel said.
County officials say they also are concerned about customer service issues such as longer waits and passenger pat-downs.
“That’s going to be my biggest concern,” Monger said Wednesday.
Ruppel already has advised the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association that passengers might face longer wait times at security, especially on busy days.
“When you have 1,000 people, it’s a sizable amount of time,” Ruppel said.
Ruppel and Monger also question the decision to move the machines because of the cost to taxpayers.
Monger said the Yampa Valley Airport Commission and the Routt County Board of Commissioners plan to send letters to Colorado congressional leaders about their concerns. Ruppel told the commissioners earlier this week that his previous efforts to appeal to Colorado’s congressional delegation for a waiver were unsuccessful.
It is unclear when YVRA will get a new body-scanning machine.
“What TSA is telling me is we don’t know if and when we’ll be able to get you a new device,” Ruppel said.
A TSA spokeswoman did not respond to an email question about how many airports are losing their machines. Ruppel said he has heard airports in Durango, Montrose and Gunnison also lost their L-3 machines.
Some airports have taken more drastic measures to hang on to their body-scanning equipment. In Helena, Mont., airport officials refused to let workers remove their L-3 machine. The Associated Press reported that a 30-minute conference call between TSA and airport officials failed to resolve the dispute.