In the post Sept. 11, 2001, commercial passenger aviation world, the Kenai Municipal Airport seems to be something of a rarity with its lack of comprehensive passenger and baggage screening procedures.
For passengers who don't like enduring screening checks, this lack of security can be a boon, while for others it raises safety concerns. Whether passengers like it or hate it, the days of lax screening at the Kenai Municipal Airport are fast coming to an end.
As of this week, all checked bags on Era Aviation flights out of Kenai are being screened, and in the next 30 days a metal detector and X-ray machine will be installed so all passengers and their carry-on luggage also will be screened.
According to John Madden, the federal security director for Southcentral Alaska with the Transportation Security Admini-stration, the move to step up security at the Kenai airport is a federal mandate from Congress.
Congress already has ordered security improvements at 429 airports across the country, mainly large, urban facilities that get the kind of large jets that were used in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Congress recently added 20 more airports to that list, including Homer, Valdez and Kenai. Security concerns that prompted "orange alerts" in December focused attention on less high-profile possible terrorist targets and got Congress thinking about protecting smaller airports, as well.
"Alaska does have a lot of strategically valuable sites," Madden said. "The security alerts in December caused the nation to focus in on how to protect those strategic sites."
In the past, screening has been the responsibility of airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration requires air carriers to have baggage and passenger screening for airports that handle planes with 60 passengers or more.
Since Era Aviation flights in and out of Kenai are less than that 60-passenger mark, Era wasn't required to do full screening. But Congress' mandate to federalize the airports means TSA is instituting full baggage and passenger screening, even though the FAA doesn't require it of Era.
"There are a few unresolved issues between Era and the TSA as to the extent of screening required, but generally their presence in Kenai, Homer and Valdez is welcomed," said Paul Landis, senior vice president of Era Aviation.
The money for the screening equipment and the TSA personnel to do the screening will ultimately come from the federal government, Madden said.
Up until this point, there had been one TSA person on duty at the airport who only checked bags that were going to be transferred to flights going beyond Anchorage, Madden said. Now there will be eight to 10 TSA people screening all baggage and passengers as they board flights, even if it's only to Anchorage.
The screeners will be part-time federal employees eligible for federal government benefits, including health care and vacation time. Screeners in Kenai will initially come from Anchorage until local personnel are hired and complete 40 hours of classroom instruction and 60 hours of supervised, on-the-job training. The application period is open for the next month. Anyone interested in applying can do so online at www.tsacareers.recruitsoft.com or by phone at (800) 887-1895.
If a sustained need for more screeners is found to be necessary, like during busy summer months, Madden said the TSA will look into hiring more screeners for Kenai.
"The objective here is to have citizens from the local community provide security for their friends and family," Madden said.
Some modifications will be made to the airport to accommodate the new screening equipment. The checked baggage screening will take place behind the scenes, but modifications will be made to the passenger waiting area of the terminal to install the X-ray machine and metal detector.
The partially enclosed area to the left of the ticket counter will be expanded and secured to be the passenger boarding area. Once passengers clear the screening area, they will have to remain in the secure boarding area before boarding their flight or go through screening again.
Though the implementation of full screening procedures will necessitate some small-scale construction at the airport, Airport Manager Rebecca Cronkhite said she is looking at the addition as a positive thing.
"(The TSA) has had an attitude of cooperation and customer service. They want to work with us and the airlines to make this work well with passengers," she said. "I'm kind of excited. I really think that there are benefits to this for the traveling public."
Cronkhite advises passengers to plan on being at the airport earlier than usual for flights to give themselves time to get through security, but Madden said the TSA's goal is to make the screening process fast and painless.
"We will be able to screen full flights quite handily," he said. "We try to screen people and bags faster than the counter can process them."
Madden advises passengers to be aware of what is and isn't allowed in their checked baggage and carry on. In the past, passengers may have been able to board Era flights with Leathermans or other sharp objects in their pockets and with restricted substances like gas or fireworks in their checked baggage, but that will no longer be the case.
The upgraded security may cause some grumbles when it all comes on line within the next month, but from Madden's perspective, the added security is a service to passengers.
"This expands our security net so people can travel with the full assurance of a safe and secure aircraft," he said.
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