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Billings airport to reduce security screeners
JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff An airline passenger makes his way through airport screeners at Billings Logan Airport Wednesday afternoon.

As part of a national reduction in the Transportation Security Administration workforce, up to 23 security screeners at the Billings Logan Airport will lose their jobs by Sept. 30.

Hugh Ford, TSA federal security director for Eastern Montana, said Wednesday he does not know the exact number of Billings airport screeners who will be laid off, but said the TSA Web site listed it at 23. He said he will have more information on the cuts early next week.

Ford hopes to handle most of the cuts through attrition. The Billings airport has 70 screeners who were hired last fall. The first screeners began working on Sept. 24 and others were hired in October and December, Ford said.

"When we first got started, it wasn't so much that we were grossly overstaffed, but we wanted to get the screening up and running and we hired too many," Ford said. "People are getting used to their jobs and we're more efficient now."

Ford said he believes the cuts can be made without sacrificing the airport's current level of security.

But he said passengers may have increased waits at larger airports and perhaps in Billings. The goal is have waits of 10 minutes or less. Even during peak hours in Billings, passenger waits rarely top 12 minutes, Ford said.

"We're not going to decrease security, we're just going to get leaner and meaner," Ford said.

The Transportation Security Administration was created in 2001 and began staffing airports with screeners in January 2002. He said it took a tremendous effort to hire 60,000 employees across the U.S., including 55,600 screeners, in one year.

The national workforce will be reduced by 3,000 screeners by May 31 and another 3,000 by Sept. 30 to save the TSA an estimated $280 million, director James Loy said. The job cuts represent a 12.6 percent reduction in the work force.

At least some of the money saved will be put into better equipment. The TSA has said it plans to commit nearly $1 billion this year for bomb detection machines. Ford said he has added three new pieces of equipment at the Billings airport in recent months and plans to eventually add in-line baggage equipment to allow screeners to check baggage after passengers are ticketed.

Some of the new machines, including a new X-ray machine, cost more than $1 million, said Ford, who also oversees airports in Bozeman, Butte and West Yellowstone. He said new machinery is being purchased at those airports as well.

"With the new X-ray machines, we can look into a bag and really tell what's in there. Some of the machines here were really old," Ford said. "The larger markets got the new equipment first. The equipment is very expensive and hard to make."

Ford said most of his screeners are from the Billings area. He hopes to either retain or offer incentives to transfer to other airports for most employees. Nationally, 33 airports will not change the number of screeners, 243 airports will lose employees and 151 airports, including many in Alaska, will add airport screeners.

Screeners received 44 hours of classroom instruction and 60 hours of on-the-job training before they took over their positions, Ford said. Weekly training sessions are also provided for screeners.

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