BISMARCK, N.D. — Managers at dozens of small airports have expressed outrage at federal officials for hauling new full-body scanners away from their facilities and sending them to large hubs that haven't yet upgraded older machines criticized for showing too much anatomy.
U.S. Transportation Security Administration contractors were threatened with arrest after officials at a Montana airport said they received no notice before the workers arrived. In North Dakota, the scanners are set to be yanked from a terminal remodeled last year with $40,000 in local funds just to fit the new machines.
"We think it's silly to have installed the thing and then come back nine months later and take it out," Bismarck airport manager Greg Haug said.
The L3 Millimeter Wave body scanners, which are about the size of a minivan on end and produce cartoonlike outlines of travelers, are being removed from 49 smaller airports across the country to help replace 174 full-body scanners used at larger airports. After controversy erupted over the bare images of a person's body the full-body scanners produce, Congress set a June deadline for them to be removed or updated.
But officials at smaller airports said removing their machines will produce longer lines, increased pat-downs, decreased security and a waste of taxpayer money.
North Dakota officials are especially critical of the swap because the state's airline boardings are skyrocketing with booming oil development. TSA is slated to remove the newly installed scanners this week at airports in Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot.
"It does seem like a waste of time and energy, but the biggest issue is security concerns," state Aeronautics Commissioner Larry Taborsky said of removing the machines. "We are feeding a lot of traffic into the national system."
"Smaller airports are being treated as less important as bigger airports in the system," said Dave Ruppel, manager of the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Steamboat Springs, Colo. "Any airport you go through is an entrance into the whole system."
Ruppel's airport lost its scanner late last month. He said the move to replace machines at big airports with scanners from smaller airports is "a political solution to a security problem."
TSA said in a statement that it will cost about $2.5 million to remove the machines from the 49 smaller airports and reinstall them at bigger facilities. The agency would not identify the specific airports where the scanners are slated to be removed. Airport directors said the machines cost about $150,000 each.
"TSA's deployment strategy is designed to ensure advanced imaging technology units are in place at checkpoints where they will be used a significant portion of operating hours, increasing overall use across the system," the agency's statement said. "TSA will continue to evaluate airport needs and will reassess its deployment strategy when additional units are procured."
That's little comfort for airport officials who point out the scanners were touted by TSA for being more secure, less intrusive and quicker.
At the Grand Forks airport, a bank of windows at the terminal had to be removed to place the machine, said Patrick Dame, airport director. The airport authority board in Grand Forks passed a resolution last week that prohibits the TSA from altering the terminal to remove the machine that has been in place less than a year.
"They're free to take the equipment, but they can't take the building apart to do so," Dame said.
Minot's scanning machine has been in place for only about 10 months, airport director Andy Solsvig said.
"With ours, they can disassemble it and wheel it out the door," Solsvig said.
That's what happened Tuesday night at the Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield, Calif., said Jack Gotcher, airport director. The airport had its new scanner for about a year but it's now going to Los Angeles International Airport, he said.
"We're back to the metal detector, where we were before," Gotcher said.
Many of the 140,000 boardings at the Bakersfield airport are oil workers heading to North Dakota's rich oil patch in the western part of the state, he said.
The North Dakota Aeronautics Commission said 2012 was a record year at the state's eight commercial airports with more than 1 million boardings, bolstered by big gains in the western part of the state, where booming oil development has spurred huge increases in airline activity.
Haug, Bismarck's airport manager, said to keep the machines, an airport must have had more than 250,000 boardings annually for three consecutive years. Bismarck had 236,000 boardings last year and is projected to surpass that soon.
"It's just a matter of time that they'll have to come back in under mandate and reinstall them because we'll quality as a bigger airport," Haug said. "This is not one of TSA's finest hours."
Airport officials in Helena, Mont., have been more drastic in attempts to keep the machines. Airport manager Ronald Mercer said workers under contract with TSA attempted to pull the machine at the airport last week but were told to leave the property or be arrested.
"We told them we weren't going to allow them to do it," Mercer said.
TSA's decision to remove the machine was a surprise to airport officials, Mercer said.
"We never heard they were coming to get it in the first place and we haven't heard anything since," he said. "We have heard rumors that they are sending federal marshals to come get it."
Taborsky, who has had a hip replacement, said the new machines allowed him to pass through security checkpoints without setting off an alarm. He said he'll likely have to go back to being a subject of pat-downs once the machines are gone.
"I'm going to set off the old metal detector now so it is really personal," Taborsky said. "It's going to impact the elderly, who have had hip or knee replacements, in particular."