Airport budgets $25 million, awaits word from new federal agency

Amid claims from some passengers and industry experts that airport security needs to improve further, the cost for post-Sept. 11 security in Portland and other airports continues to spiral upward.

Steve Schreiber, the Port of Portland's aviation director, says, for example, it was an 'educated guess' to include $25 million for security improvements at Portland International Airport in the port's annual budget that begins in July.

Meanwhile, an official with the flight attendants union says he wishes that those making security changes would listen to his colleagues.

John Cornelius Jr., a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines and local president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said: 'There's a lot of stuff that's been done upfront to give the appearance of increased security, and, yes, it's better than Sept. 11. But what's most frustrating is, this should have happened 10 years ago.

'I wish that the powers that be would really sit down and listen to crew members, the front line, and take their concerns earnestly. I really feel we are their biggest asset in devising new security procedures, and I really feel we're one part being left out of the equation.'

The $25 million includes $20 million to pay for any remodeling required at PDX when additional detection scanners are installed. The scanners would fulfill the federal mandate requiring the screening of all checked baggage by the end of 2002. The other $5 million would pay for more permanent upgrades of security checkpoints at PDX.

The scanners, which cost $1 million each, are immensely heavy Ñ hence the need for modification at the airport. United Airlines and Alaska Airlines own the two machines already at PDX. But the port won't know until next month how many more scanners will be required by the newly created Transportation Security Administration Ñ or whether the agency is going to allow other technology besides the scanners.

Schreiber said the federal government is considering other options to meet the screening mandate. At the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, for example, security personnel used both scanners and a method called trace detection to check for explosives.

Trace detection uses swabs to check bags and shoes; the swabs then go to an electronic reader. Schreiber said the method is less expensive and takes far less space than the scanners.

'We're anxiously waiting for May 18, when the TSA is going to come out with public documents stating how they intend to meet that goal,' he said. 'Right now, it's kind of shades of gray, to be perfectly honest.'

E.B. Galligan, the port's chief financial officer, told port commissioners this week that although the budget includes money to pay for changes needed to accommodate the machines, 'we expect the federal government to pay for the detection equipment itself.'

Schreiber said that, in theory, the security administration will pay for most of the improvements, 'but it's not exactly clear where their responsibility ends and ours begins.'

Money well spent?

Colorado aviation industry consultant Michael J. Boyd said the security administration has the makings of 'a rogue bureaucracy with no accountability and no recourse for you.' Where PDX is concerned, he said, '$30 million is just the start of something grand. Are we safer? The answer is no.'

He added: 'Portland needs to recognize that it's a victim and has to spend this kind of money to comply with security enhancements that may or may not work, in effect basically managed by the same people who were there on 9-11.'

Although authority over airport security screeners moved from the airlines to the federal government in February, PDX won't get a permanent federal security manager until sometime in June.

The security administration, which will hire the PDX security chief, 'still is formulating itself as an agency,' Schreiber said. 'There's a very high level of management, but there still isn't a lot below that yet.'

There is no doubt that the security administration is going to be both costly and enormous. Funding for the current fiscal year could total more than $6 billion, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has said he expects the new agency to be larger than the U.S. Border Patrol, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration combined.

Still, seven months after Sept. 11, some critics charge that airport security hasn't made the advances that should have been prompted by the terrorist attacks.

Confidence lacking

'In a very general sense, there's the appearance of higher security,' said Spokane businessman Bill Ulrich, who flies frequently. 'The lines are longer, they appear to be looking at things more carefully, but I don't think any of the flying public is really convinced that they are.'

Cornelius, of the flight attendants union, added: 'I think we're seeing people starting to get frustrated with the inconvenience. It's not the fast process it was before. It's never going to be that fast again.'

He said that although the flight attendants union, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has fought for better security for at least a decade, flight attendants' concerns still aren't being heard.

How does he rate security at PDX these days? 'Average.'

Stepped-up security after the terrorist attacks yielded a storm of complaints about too-intimate searches, particularly by women travelers and flight crew members who said they were groped by male security staff.

Although the head of the security administration says same-sex searches are agency policy, many frequent travelers say the policy is not always followed.

Contact Jeanie Senior at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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