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TSA proposal could cut security at regional airports

A Delta jet at Grand Forks International Airport. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

A proposed federal transportation budget could jeopardize safety screening at regional airports.

The budget plan calls for cuts in funding for the Transportation Security Administration at 150 of the smallest airports across the country. Passengers would instead undergo security checks at larger airports upon arrival.

The changes could save up to $115 million annually.

Executive Director Ryan Riesinger of the Grand Forks International Airport said the proposal is still in the early stages and many details are unclear. He said the Grand Forks Airport, which flies 115,000 people each year, would not be affected. Smaller airports throughout the region could risk losing TSA, though.

Grand Forks International Airport Authority member Jeannie Mock said she worries the proposal would harm business for small airports.

"We want to be seen as a good airport, a legitimate choice and something that's local so that you don't have to drive three hours and park for a week," she said.

John Nord, manager at the Devils Lake Regional Airport, said his airport would potentially be one of the locations to lose TSA screening since only 7,000 people fly out of there annually.

The TSA was created in 2001 in the wake of 9/11 to protect plane passengers from terrorist attacks. Nord said it's needed to ensure passenger safety.

TSA plays the same role at all airports, he said, and leaving smaller locations unchecked could pose a security threat.

"We're trying to protect the flying public. ... If you're getting on a jet, you need to be screened prior to getting on," he said.

The plan would call for passengers to undergo security screening at larger airports before transferring to a connecting flight, but Riesinger said it's unclear where or how the checks would happen.

Joe Hedrick, manager of the Thief River Falls Airport, said screening passengers at larger airports is cumbersome and frustrating for customers. Connection time is also a factor, Riesinger said. If passengers are catching a connecting flight, the added security checkpoint upon arrival could interfere with their ability to make it to the next gate on time.

Commercial airports can elect to hire private security teams instead of using TSA. Mock said smaller airports typically work on a tight budget, and private security is often too expensive for them.

Hedrick said he isn't worried about the Thief River Falls Airport losing its screening because he doesn't think the proposal will advance. The airport flies out 5,500 people annually.

If the plan were to move forward, Riesinger said there are "a lot of questions to answer still." The proposal would take time to solidify and enact.

"I really hope they don't pull any security checkpoints around the country because that can have devastating effects on the communities that they serve," Hedrick said.