Rock Hill: Tighter Security Wrong Fit for Local Airport
July 31, 2009
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  • By Matt Garfield

    Monday, Mar. 16, 2009

    The future of the Rock Hill/York County Airport, already clouded by criticism from neighbors over the past two years, now faces a new challenge.

    Federal officials are considering tighter security measures that would apply to the local airport and others like it. Among the potential new rules: Airports and their users would have to screen passengers against the federal “No-Fly” list, perform background checks on flight crews and provide training for a locally-based security coordinator.

    City officials fiercely oppose the measures, saying they would drive up costs and take away the convenience factor that makes private jets want to land here in the first place.

    “They haven’t shown what the problem is,” City Manager Carey Smith said. “You’ve come up with an answer before you’ve defined the problem. And it’s an expensive answer.

    “We just don’t think they’ve done their homework.”

    Responding to protests from across the country, the Federal Transit Administration has delayed a decision and said it wants to gather more feedback. The agency has received more than 4,000 comments, including many from public officials frustrated by the added burdens.

    No congressional approval is needed to impose the changes. Instead, authority belongs to the Department of Homeland Security.

    In light of the widespread opposition, city airport manager Eric Ramsdell said he is optimistic the rules will be adjusted. “I think we’ll see changes,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount of pushback.”

    A response to Sept. 11

    The rationale behind the proposal relates to the post-Sept. 11 world. Homeland Security officials want to prevent terrorists from using small planes as weapons.

    They say adequate security is in place at commercial airports. But in its 260-page proposal, the agency argues smaller, general aviation airports are vulnerable.

    About 300 U.S. airports would be affected, including those designated as “relievers” for nearby commercial hubs. If big airports get too crowded, private jets would be diverted to relievers under federal rules. Rock Hill falls into that category, along with Columbia Owens Downtown Airport.

    At the local jet strip, located for 50 years off Celanese Road on the northwest side of town, passengers come and go from private planes throughout the day.

    The terminal building is open during normal business hours and staffed by an on-site operator called Skytech. It’s equipped with a perimeter fence and an undisclosed number of surveillance cameras.

    On the weekends, airplane owners are given special access so they can reach their aircraft at any time.

    Passengers do not have to pass through metal detectors, and the proposed rules do not call for that to change.

    Smith and city officials have shared their concerns with members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-York, has heard from about a dozen local people.

    “We’re reviewing the rule right now,” Spratt spokesman Chuck Fant said. “We expect to hear from more people in the coming weeks. The good news is TSA has extended the comment period.”

    Graham, who sits on the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, has not taken a public position but recognizes the potential burdens created, his office said.

    Graham wants “to ensure we maintain an appropriate balance between freedom and security,” spokesman Wes Hickman said.

    ‘There’s no winning’

    It is unclear who would absorb the added costs.

    Background checks would be performed by a third-party service, with plane owners having to pay for them.

    Meanwhile, local governments would have to pay to send security coordinators to training that is only available on the West Coast, Ramsdell said.

    “What they’ve done is equate a twin-engine turboprop to an Airbus 380 and said they essentially have the same threat,” Ramsdell said.

    “And that’s just not the case.”

    An estimated 43,000 total takeoffs and landings occurred at the airport last year, or about five an hour.

    Flight traffic is off 10 to 15 percent this year because of a rise in fuel prices and the poor economy, officials said. The new rules would deliver another hit, Skytech general manager Mike Fitzgerald said.

    “All they have to say is, ‘Because of national security, we can’t give you any details,'” he said. “You can’t argue with that. It’s like talking your way out of a speeding ticket. There’s no winning. It’s your word against their word.”

    After a half-century of relative calm, the airport has become a hotbed for controversy. Local officials proposed tighter zoning rules two years ago on land and homes near the runway flight patterns.

    Hundreds of neighbors banded together to protest both the rules, citing fears over declining property values and more jet traffic. The neighbors won some concessions, but the rules ultimately won approval.

    Now, the post-Sept. 11 security climate could bring another set of changes. The result, Fitzgerald said, could be that private jet owners choose to fly less frequently because they don’t want to hassle with security procedures.

    “If I got to do all this stuff, I can send them down and put them on US Air,” he said. “The reason you get a corporate airplane is because you don’t have to do that.”

    Matt Garfield

    Date: 2009-03-16