Helena Airport Refuses to Give Up Body Scanner

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Officials at Helena Regional Airport have prevented the U.S. Transportation Security Administration from removing a full-body scanner.

Airport Manager Ron Mercer told the Independent Record that workers arrived Thursday night to take the machine, but airport officials stepped in. He said a 30-minute conference call ensued but nothing was resolved.

“They showed up last night and we didn’t let them take the machine,” Mercer told the newspaper on Friday.

The airport’s millimeter-wave machine is among those the federal agency wants to remove to replace 174 full-body scanners being taken out of larger airports. The larger airports are losing their low-dose X-ray units because Rapidscan, the company that makes them, was unable to meet a June 2013 congressional deadline for software upgrades to show screeners less-revealing images of passengers.

Mercer said he asked the federal agency for “reasonable advance notice” of the removal of the airport’s scanner and how the agency would deal with problems that would result, such as longer lines and delays.

The federal agency also planned to remove a scanner at Glacier Park International Airport near Kalispell. Airport Director Cindi Martin said the machine was still there Friday, but that was because workers arrived but forgot a special tool and planned to return. Airport officials didn’t return a call from The Associated Press on Saturday.

Losing the body scanners would mean the two airports would return to the older walk-through metal detectors and pat-downs.

“The federal government’s still got to act like a reasonable agency,” Mercer said Friday. “They can’t just blindside you and not tell you what they’re doing.”

He also sent a letter to the Transportation Security Administration.

“The lack of formal notice and consultation is not what we are accustomed to in our partnership with TSA, and this has put us in a difficult situation,” Mercer wrote. “In the absence of some written notification of the proposed action, advice as to how it would be accomplished, and what will follow, we are unable to properly perform our functions.”

In an email to the newspaper, a TSA spokesman said: “TSA is committed to upholding the highest levels of security in all airports. We’ll continue to work with airport management to facilitate the intended removal of Advanced Imaging Technology from the Helena Airport.”

Mercer also said in the letter that the airport spent $125,000 in renovations to accommodate the scanner that was installed last year. He said the scanner is considered a “fixture” at the airport, and under Montana law, the TSA doesn’t have the authority to remove the device even though the federal agency owns it.

Before the arrival of the scanner, passengers were encouraged to arrive as early as two hours before a flight because of potential long waits.

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