Booming business |

Booming business

David O. Williams

There’s a saying at the local ski areas: “Leave the powder on the mountain.” It refers to skiers coming down covered with loose snow.As of Dec. 31, the same saying will apply at Eagle County Regional Airport, but it will refer to gunpowder, or any other trace chemicals associated with explosive devices.Happy snowriders departing out of the local airport after that date will have to pass their checked luggage through one of 13 Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) machines being frantically installed to meet a congressionally mandated deadline.Local airport officials and federal security experts say the Eagle County Airport will meet that deadline, hopefully with a minimum of disruption to passenger traffic during Vail’s busy holiday season.”What I’m worried about is lines,” says new director of aviation Mark Davidson, “and we’re going to do everything we can to minimize those lines.”Because just as long lift lines can put a damper on a holiday ski vacation, so can snarls at the local airport, where about 40 percent of Vail and Beaver Creek’s destination skiers fly into. Just 35 miles from Vail, Eagle County Regional handles planes as large as Boeing 757s and has rapidly become a regional hub for Vail and other ski resorts, recording 339,652 passengers last year (318,068 during ski season).Ray Krebs, federal security director for the Western Slope region of the Transportation Security Administration, says one of the reasons Eagle County won’t see longer lines after the Dec. 31 baggage screening deadline is because the airport met a Nov. 19 deadline to federalize its security screening staff.”We plan to have people actually stand in line a shorter period of time than they ever have before,” Krebs says, “and the reason for that is because we’ll have a professionally trained work force and a fully staffed work force.”Eagle County now employs 60 full-time federal screeners year-round, Krebs says, a number that jumps to 88 full- and part-timers during the busy winter months, not including law enforcement officials or investigators. And the number of screening lanes has increased this season from two to three.Krebs is based at the Eagle County Airport, but oversees security now for several small resort airports on the Western Slope, including Aspen’s Sardy Field, which handles much smaller planes than Eagle, and the Steamboat airport in Hayden. He says all three of those facilities will meet the Dec. 31 deadline, but that Aspen will be the first to go 100 percent operational.Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, the main central reservations firm for the Aspen area, says no incoming guests have called with concerns about longer security lines because of baggage screening.”Am I concerned that there might be some longer lines coming? Certainly. But do I think it will approach what we saw in the wake of 9/11? Definitely not,” says Tomcich, who adds that Aspen’s airport is also expanding this season, with two screening lanes instead of one.ETDs, nine of which are being installed in the lobby of the Eagle airport terminal in front of the ticket counters and four of which will be used for curbside check-in, collect samples and detect vapors and residue of explosives.Engineer Mike Trulove, an operational officer for the year-old Transportation Security Administration (formed in the wake of 9/11), says ETDs include a hand-held wand about 18-20 inches, with a swab on the end that resembles a gun-cleaning patch.Screeners wipe the handle, zipper and flap areas of a piece of luggage (but can also check the interior) to gather molecules of several chemicals associated with explosives, including fertilizer and TNT.The swabs are then placed in machines that shoot a blast of air that suspends the molecules and analyzes them in about 10 seconds. The machines can be programmed to check for drugs, Trulove says, but won’t be at the Eagle County airport.The stainless steel tables where the luggage is first wiped each cost $5,000, Trulove says, and the analysis machines themselves each run about $60,000, all of which is paid for by the TSA. He’s optimistic the transition will be seamless, and that all work will be completed by Dec. 13 and the machines will be ready for use on Dec. 31.”We’re all new at this,” says Trulove, a former chairlift engineer for the Aspen Skiing Company, “but the information we’re getting is the explosive equipment is generally faster than the ticketing. We’re hoping for no bog downs, that’s our goal.”TSA’s Krebs, a former U.S. Army Security Agency intelligence officer and private consultant to the aviation industry, says the post-9/11 world has called for extraordinary sacrifices by airlines passengers, but that he has been overwhelmed by the positive response he’s received. One of those sacrifices at the Eagle airport will continue to be a lack of close-in parking due to the lack of explosive barriers at the terminal.”There will be no parking closer to the airport than we have right now; we will not put in an explosive deterrent,” Krebs says. “We’ve actually received a waiver from Washington on all airports of our size.”Now I say there aren’t any plans to do that right now, but that would change depending upon what the terrorists might do. We have to be successful 100 percent of the time, and the terrorists only have to be successful one time. That’s why you won’t see anymore close-in parking.”

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