TSA's New Tone: Under Admiral Loy, the agency is paying more heed to airports

Under Admiral Loy, the agency is paying more heed to airports

WESLEY CHAPEL, FL – Indications from Congress and the Transportation Security Administration are that as many as 40 airports could get waivers from the 100 percent baggage screening requirement at year’s end. At the same time, the TSA is expressing a more conciliatory tone toward the people who run U.S. airports. Such moves helped set the tone for the annual gathering of airport managers near Tampa in late September.

The F. Russell Hoyt National Airports Conference, put on by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), saw a record number of attendees this year, as managers continue to seek answers to the security challenges related to 9/11. Among the hottest issues: how 100 percent baggage screening will be achieved; related TSA space requirements; funding; and the role that local law enforcement officers (LEOs) will play. Many AAAE members in attendance were also seeking clearer direction from TSA regarding potential security requirements for general aviation airports, which many expect once the screening mandates for airline passengers and baggage are accomplished.

The Changing Concessions Environment

Meeting the concessions needs of the traveling public is a changing dynamic, according to speakers at this year’s NAC, marked by changing demands and increased costs.

Lou Bottino, senior vice president of The Paradies Shops, says sales are rebounding faster than airline passenger counts, and that the increased dwell times due to security are bringing about a "merchandise shift" that has seen his news/convenience stores experience a 13 percent increase in sales.

"Airside (sales) is much, much stronger than landside," says Bottino, who relates that his company recorded a 3 percent increase in sales for the fiscal year ending in June, despite the negative impact of 9/11.

Bottino says that airports need to make sure their retailers have adequate space to accommodate the merchandise shift that is occurring, and also need to be aware of higher costs associated with security. One example: retailers often need an extra employee for inventory dropoffs so that one person can stay with the truck outside the terminal.

Diane Pryor-Vercelli, senior director of properties and contracts administration for the Hillsbor-ough County Aviation Authority, which operates Tampa Interna-tional, says there’s a growing demand by passengers for quiet rooms, such as an airport chapel. In October, Tampa expects to open a new child play area.

Pryor-Vercelli says airports need to look at ways they can help their tenants meet customer service needs, such as putting together discount packages and offering coupons. Concessionaires, she says, should look at focusing on employee training and incentive programs that will help boost sales.

She also says there’s a need for airports to provide a mechanism, such a prepaid envelope at a minimal cost to passengers, that allows items (nail clippers, etc.) confiscated by TSA to be mailed home with little difficulty.

Kelly Johnson, A.A.E., director for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, perhaps reflected the sentiment of many at the opening session with her comment, "They tell me this is Phase 1; I can’t wait for Phase 2 when we step back and do it right." A top concern at her facility, she says, is that TSA via its contractor layed out the security equipment plan for her lobby without consulting the airport or tenant airlines. However, she says the communication is improving now that the airport’s federal security director (FSD) has been put in place.

Meanwhile, TSA Under Secre-taries Tom Blank and Michael Robinson reflected the changing posture of the TSA under the direction of new Under Secretary James Loy.

"TSA has learned the absolute criticality of working with our stakeholders," Blank told attendees, adding that "it’s important to recognize that we are in a partnership, whether we like it or not."

Robinson, appearing to address a concern that the structure of TSA into five U.S. regions will lead to varying implementation of the regs – a long-time complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration – says all five regional heads for TSA will be based in Washington, D.C., and that, "We will not move to a regional-based organization."

Robinson also took on one of the greatest concerns of airport managers: the role of local law enforcement in the new security environment. He says it is the TSA’s preference to keep the system many airports have today of retaining local LEOs with reimbursement for the cost coming through the agency. A former state police director himself, Robinson says that TSA will apply its "limited resources" only when necessary and that it has become obvious that the agency will be unable to come in and replace the thousands of local LEOs already on the job.

Robinson points to the orange alert put out in September as an example of how TSA will handle future crises. Many in industry, he says, anticipated a "broad mandate" from TSA, but instead the agency took a local, airport by airport approach. He says the agency is expecting the FSDs to work with airports and other local officials in identifying the security risks at the local level and the resources that are available to address them.

Regarding general aviation, Robinson says that the TSA’s objective on security is to put a system in place that helps to identify terrorist threats and "causes the anomalies to stand out." He says that the TSA is seeking to secure the GA segment without regulation, and sees temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) as a vital tool in reaching this objective. At the same time, he says the Washington, D.C. area presents a higher level of threat and GA can continue to expect restrictions in the region, particularly at Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA), and that reducing the "clutter" in the airspace around the nation’s capital is a primary reason the situation will not change anytime soon.

Bill Barkhauer, A.A.E., the director of the Morristown (NJ) Municipal Airport and head of AAAE’s General Aviation Airports Taskforce that recently offered a series of recommendations on GA security, told Robinson that the situation at DCA continues to be a major sticking point for many of the corporate aircraft users at his airport. "We have a little trouble buying into the logic of this," says Barkhauer, pointing to the fact that the people using corporate aircraft are generally well known and obviously not a terrorist threat.

Cautions of the Inspector General

DOT Inspector General Ken Mead, a keynote speaker at NAC, agrees that there are signals that the TSA is now more amenable to working with airports, but says critical time was lost because of the agency’s initial ignoring or mistrust of the airport community. "There’s been an awakening of sorts," he comments.

Mead continues to caution, as he has since 9/11, about unrealistic cost estimates of what it is going to take to secure the U.S. aviation system – i.e., who pays, how much, and from where exactly the money is going to come. He is skeptical about the creation of a Department of Homeland Security as the answer to the funding question, and foresees the Airport Improve-ment Program as a potential target as trust fund monies lessen and FAA expenses increase "exponentially."

Regarding the funding reauthorization battle that will take place in the next year as AIR-21 expires in 2003, Mead predicts that the debate will only become fuzzier as Congress grapples with providing monies for Homeland Security and DOT, which will also be seeking reauthorization for surface transportation. "Start getting ready to deal with two big agencies," he says.

The IG also calls for industry and politicians to not lose site of capacity needs of the aviation system, and says the needs should be addressed now while there is a lull in activity.

On a more positive note, Mead lauds the contract tower program and says it should be expanded to some 70 additional low-level towers, a move opposed by the controllers union. Mead says there has been significant progress regarding runway incursions at U.S. airports, recording a 23 percent decrease in the past year.

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