National Guard Personnel Bolster Security Measures at the Vineyard Airport

By MANDY LOCKE

National Guard detachments will arrive at the Martha's Vineyard Airport soon to help strengthen security operations.

Acting Gov. Jane Swift announced this week that National Guardsmen will be sent to several airports across the state.

Because of Martha's Vineyard Airport's certification level, it became one of six airports in Massachusetts to receive National Guard personnel. These military units will work in conjunction with West Tisbury police officers already in place at the airport. In addition, the National Guardsmen will be helping airlines with security screening and the airport with perimeter patrolling.

"It allows us to concentrate on operations, and it standardizes security. It's a welcome change," said Bill Weibrecht, manager of Martha's Vineyard Airport.

Mr. Weibrecht expects a small contingent of guardsmen - fewer than a dozen - initially. He suspects the guardsmen will be in place for at least six months.

"It gives the federal government time to figure out their long-term plans for airport security," he said.

The presence of National Guardsmen also eases costs associated with a law enforcement presence.

"It gets airports out of the financial burden - direct operating costs that weren't planned for and couldn't have be planned for," he said.

Governor Swift's directive is the latest in a long list of state and federal security mandates issued since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"Changes are coming in as soon as we can implement them," Mr. Weibrecht said.

And at an airport that was trimming staff in the early fall season, airport and airline personnel are pulling long days to implement new security measures.

"We were in gear-down mode, but now we are having to gear up," Mr. Weibrecht said.

Mr. Weibrecht expects to continue receiving more instruction about increasing security measures. "It's likely to get more restrictive rather than less. And you'll see that more pronounced here," he said, mentioning his commitment as airport manager to exceed minimal state and federal security requirements.

Outbound passengers already faced a number of heightened security measures before this week's announcement of the National Guard deployment. The short-term parking area has been closed since the Martha's Vineyard Airport reopened, in compliance with the FAA mandate that all lots within 300 feet of the terminal should be blocked.

While the airport management is responsible for security measures related to the facility, law enforcement and emergency response, the individual airlines must screen each passenger before they enter the plane.

Cape Air, the largest commercial carrier at Martha's Vineyard Airport, providing year-round service to and from the Vineyard, is now screening each and every passenger. Before Sept. 11, FAA regulations required only that Cape Air check customers headed to the Providence airport, because passengers arrived in a secure area of the airport. Now, with every portion of every American airport being considered secure, Cape Air must screen all passengers.

In addition to sending passengers through electronic screening equipment, airline personnel search the baggage of particular passengers who meet a FAA customer profile.

"You can't do much more to make it more secure," said Colin Ewing, Cape Air supervisor at the Martha's Vineyard Airport.

In addition, Cape Air also restricts customers from boarding at the last minute because of the added security screening.

"Those who would show up at the last minute are out of luck," Mr. Ewing said. "And for Vineyarders, that's hard."

Mr. Ewing admitted that customers might find these rigid security measures unnecessary for the Vineyard.

"Here on the Vineyard, it seems like overkill. But when you consider some of the terrorists lived on the Cape, that's pretty close to home," he said. "It's better to be safe than sorry."

Because of FAA regulations that stipulate screened passengers must wait in a separate holding area, the airport must partition the current waiting area. Previously, passengers would walk directly to the plane after passing through security, maintaining the separation between screened and unscreened passengers. Now, with the extra time it takes to check passengers, they need an indoor waiting area. Mr. Weibrecht predicts this project will be complete within the next 60 to 75 days. The airlines and the airport will also join together to purchase another screening machine.

In addition, Mr. Weibrecht said the airport was already working on tightening access security. Because of recent events, they've sped the implementation of new security measures. Airport personnel will be required to have several forms of identification in addition to keys to access certain places in the airport.

Mr. Weibrecht said he expects the next group of federal security mandates to apply to private aircraft - which account for fully half of the airport's passenger traffic. Previously and currently, the airport has no requirement to screen passengers boarding private aircrafts.

"I think we'll get private craft changes in the next 30 days. We'll start to get federal guidelines," he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Weibrecht still plans to forge ahead with capital projects slated to begin next summer. These include improving ramps to accommodate the increasing size of aircrafts that land on the Vineyard. And he expects the airline business will continue to flourish.

"We think we'll have the traffic. Martha's Vineyard is still a desirable location," he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Weibrecht and his staff continue to plan as best they can in these uncertain times.

"We just can't tell what it will look like. We'll continue to hire and train people," he said.