Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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Spend an hour with Yampa Valley Regional Airport Manager Dave Ruppel and you’ll quickly learn that he is a serious, dedicated professional who understands the responsibilities of his job and cares deeply about providing the best security possible to the 210,000 passengers who move through his airport every year.
Given that reality, it’s time to pay attention when Ruppel uses terms like “hole,” “a step backwards” and “degradation” to describe security conditions at YVRA because of a congressional mandate that resulted in airport security screening equipment being removed from YVRA this week.
As reported in Thursday’s Steamboat Today, “Earlier this month Ruppel was contacted by the Transportation Security Administration and was told YVRA would have to give up its (L-3) full-body scanning machine that was installed at the airport last ski season.” With the L-3 scanner removed, TSA has reverted to “conducting pat-downs on YVRA passengers and using an older walk-through metal detector.”
Why did TSA yank the only full-body passenger scanner at YVRA designed to screen for “metallic and non-metallic threats — including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing,” while removing similar L-3 scanners from other small airports across Colorado and the U.S.? They did so as a byproduct 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.
“Federal lawmakers told Rapiscan officials they needed to come up with a software fix by June. But when it became clear that Rapiscan wouldn’t make that deadline, the TSA canceled the contract and began pulling the company’s machines.”
With the Rapiscan machines being removed from larger airports in the U.S. because of a political decision by Congress to respond to privacy complaints by no later than June 1, TSA is poaching L-3 body scanners from smaller airports and transferring them to the airports losing the Rapiscan devices because L-3 can’t produce enough new machines by the June 1 deadline.
Ruppel “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.”
Ruppel is acutely aware that Mohamed Atta, the hijacker-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston that struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, entered the air passenger system that fateful day by means of a regional airport in Maine.
Recognizing that TSA is working under a congressional mandate to remove the Rapiscan devices, Ruppel contacted the three members of Colorado’s congressional delegation with jurisdiction at YVRA seeking a waiver of the transfer of his airport’s L-3 scanner. According to Ruppel, prior to Thursday’s report in the Steamboat Today, Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton hadn’t acknowledged Ruppel’s request. Sen. Michael Bennet’s staff responded but didn’t offer any relief. Adding insult to injury, TSA hasn’t told Ruppel when, or even if, YVRA will get another full-body scanner.
So where does that leave security at YVRA and, potentially, dozens of other rural airports across the country? It leaves them with passenger screening technology that is below the level TSA deemed necessary just a month ago. Is it a critical degradation in security? Presumably not, as TSA personnel will institute manual procedures designed to replace the loss of the L-3’s advanced imaging technology.
But without question, the current situation demonstrates a lack of common sense and foresight on the part of Congress who, for political reasons, mandated the removal of the Rapiscan machines before having enough replacement scanners directly from L-3 instead of from airports where the devices were in use.
Politics never should trump airport security.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.