Rogue Valley Medford Airport Director Calls Baggage Screener Removal Mistake

Aug. 6--Airport Director Bern Case condemned plans to reduce local baggage screeners, calling it a mistake that could throttle record growth at Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.

"I think it will put the lines into the parking lot to get through screening," said Bern Case, who's seen 19 months of record passenger volumes at the airport. "It could ruin the run we've had."

Frustrated passengers might avoid Medford, instead choosing other airports, he said. "It becomes a deterrent to fly."

The Transportation Security Administration announced recently that it plans to cut the number of screeners at Medford airport from 27 to 20 in a major reshuffling that will increase screeners at other airports.

Medford resident Dierk Laugher, who was traveling out of the airport Friday, said fewer screeners "would be a bummer."

Case said that after analyzing TSA's numbers he thinks a mistake has been made, and fired off a letter to Congressman Greg Walden's offices seeking help.

Walden's district director John Snider, said, "This is a cut that defies logic when the growth at this airport is so robust."

He said other airports with declining passenger volumes are not seeing cuts in the number of screeners. "It almost sounds like a clerical error," he said.

Considering the local growth, Snider said, "There would be a good argument for increasing the number of screeners."

He said TSA should, at the minimum, continue to maintain the same or greater work force in Medford until the new passenger terminal is completed. At that point, two new types of equipment will be installed that will speed up the checking of baggage and detect explosives.

TSA spokeswoman Jennifer Peppin said the decision to cut back on the work force at one airport and increase it at another was based on a number of different criteria, not just on passenger volume.

Some of these other factors include passenger processing rates, projected expansions and flight scheduling.

She said TSA is working under a cap of 45,000 total employees that have to be distributed at airports throughout the country. Some airports, like Las Vegas, have extremely long lines and waits, requiring additional screeners, she said, adding that the reshuffling will cut screening delays overall.

Last year, 532,194 passengers used Medford's airport. And Medford had 57,725 passengers in June compared to Eugene with 63,949, a 10 percent difference.

Case said the gap was 35 to 40 percent a year ago. Eugene, however, won't see a reduction in its 38 TSA screeners.

Based on passenger volume, Case thinks Medford should have about 35 screeners.

"They should have added seven, not subtracted seven," he said.

Peppin disputed Case's assertion that a mistake has been made, but said, "These numbers aren't set in concrete."

However, until some new factors come into play, she added, "At this point in time, these numbers stand."

The Medford airport is on the cusp of a $35 million rebuild that will make it easier for passengers to use the airport.

Case finds it absurd that TSA officials previously wouldn't disclose how many baggage screeners are at each airport, but have now published the numbers on the Internet.

"If you called me two weeks ago to ask me how many screeners, I couldn't tell you," he said. "Now a person could analyze where the weak link is."

A frequent flier, Robert Eastman, CEO of Musician's Friend in Medford, said he thinks TSA could do more to wring out efficiencies from the staff it has.

"I see a lot of people sitting around," he said.

But he also thinks part of the problem at the airport is passengers arriving too late to get through the checkout lines.

When three planes are scheduled to leave around the same time, it's difficult for TSA screeners to keep up, particularly if passengers are arriving only a half hour or so before their flight.

"You can't expect them to have enough people to handle the flow when (passengers) are all coming late," he said.