The Transportation Security Administration refuses to provide screeners for Marathon's airport, which may cause Delta Air Lines and Continental Connection to cancel plans to launch flights.
By INA PAIVA CORDLE AND DOUGLAS HANKS III
Airline service slated to start this fall at the Florida Keys Marathon airport may be scrapped due to a shortage of federal security screeners.
Delta Air Lines and Continental Connection planned to launch flights to Atlanta, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale beginning in late October and November.
But late last month, the Transportation Security Administration notified airport officials that it would not staff Marathon. Now airport officials are scrambling to try to persuade TSA to reverse its decision.
The new service would represent the first scheduled commercial flights since American Eagle pulled out of Marathon in 2000, said Peter Horton, director of airports for Monroe County.
TSA spokesman Christopher White said Marathon lost out to other airports in the competition for federal screeners due to a limited number of officers and higher priorities.
''We made a decision as an organization that we need to allocate our resources to the busiest, most complex and highest risk airports,'' White said.
The Marathon airport already won $750,000 in federal transportation funds to subsidize the new service, with local businesses and civic leaders contributing another $300,000. Monroe County waived terminal rents and landing fees for the carriers.
Airlines could still fly out of Marathon without TSA screeners as long as passengers board and deplane in a distant part of the airfield or the terminal where general aviation planes land. Carriers reject that option, saying it would lead to long connection delays and heavily inconvenience passengers.
''You would make the trip so hard it is just not worth it,'' said Dave Hackett, president of Gulfstream International Airlines, which would operate Continental Connection's flights. ``The service is not viable at all without the federal screening, and there is no chance at all we would have it without federal screening.''
Continental Connection already has been selling tickets on flights it plans to begin Oct. 29 from Marathon to Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. The flights would be operated using Gulfstream's 19-seat Beech 1900 aircraft.
Hackett said the airline will have to decide by the end of this week if it will cancel its plans.
Delta Air Lines also said last month that it was launching new daily service between Atlanta and Marathon, marking the first commercial flights from Marathon to a city outside Florida.
The new flights, which are slated to begin Nov. 16, would be operated by Delta Connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines, using 40-seat Bombardier regional jets.
But Delta won't fly to Marathon without TSA screeners, said spokeswoman Gina Laughlin.
''We think it's a market that that has a lot of potential and is a great addition to our network,'' Laughlin said. ``But we can't operate that service without security screeners, so we are very hopeful that the issue will be resolved in time to begin service on Nov. 16.''
The new flights were supposed to give the middle Keys coveted access to hubs for discount carriers and international flights.
''This is something that's very important to the tourism picture of the Keys,'' said Andy Newman, spokesman for the Monroe County tourism bureau, which planned an advertising campaign linked to the new routes.
The TSA had been working with the Marathon airport for months, creating a schedule and helping its architects design the checkpoint, Horton said.
Having regular flights from Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale ''puts Marathon on the map,'' said Tyler Walters, general manager of the Tranquility Bay resort in Marathon. ``Marathon has always been the place -- at least historically -- the place that people drive through on the way to Key West.''
Officials and business leaders hoped the flights would give tourism a boost after a soft year for the Keys, with hotel taxes down and some resorts and attractions reporting a prolonged slump from Hurricane Wilma's battering last fall.
Airport backers argue the TSA decision contradicts previous federal backing for the project: the $750,000 grant to help the airport attract new routes.
And Horton said requiring the airlines to fly into and out of distant areas will put Marathon at a competitive disadvantage with Key West, Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
One option may be for the airport to hire a private company to handle screening.
The TSA is exploring the possibility of allowing airports to contract with a screening company, which would be overseen by the TSA.
But Horton said the Marathon airport has not begun to pursue that. Meanwhile, the airport is asking the Congressional delegation to try to persuade the TSA to change its mind.
''We're going to keep working with the airport and the TSA,'' said Delta's Laughlin, ``and try to get this issued resolved.''
This is ackward. I did not know that the TSA could actually deny serving an airport. Could MTH get one of those "TSA approved" private companies to provide security screening? Any thoughts?