TSA officers, pitkin county airport

Two TSA officers wait to assist travelers planning to depart the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport on Thursday morning. The TSA staffs the airport with 20 permanent positions year round and 12 additional temporary workers from mid-December though early April when the airport is at its busiest.

The federal government put up quite a bit of money — as much as $234,576 for housing and $95,448 for meals and other expenses — to accommodate the 12 Transportation Security Administration officers who provided temporary help from Dec. 17 to April 3 at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. 

Those figures are estimated, based on per-diem expense figures for housing and meals the TSA provided to the Aspen Daily News. The numbers don’t include the cost of pay and benefits.

The workers, known as TSOs (transportation security officers), are part of the TSA’s National Deployment Force, which provides additional security support at U.S. airports whenever needed to assist permanent TSOs. Though the Aspen airport is served by 20 permanent TSO positions year round, the temporary workers are needed during ski season when airport traffic is busiest.

During the most recent winter season, the TSO temps were housed at Aspen Meadows Resort, the lodging component of The Aspen Institute, at a rate of $181 per day. Neither a TSA spokeswoman nor the general manager of Aspen Meadows could say exactly how long the lodging arrangement has been in place. What is known is that each year, the TSA puts out a request for proposals to local hotels, and Aspen Meadows has won the bid for at least the last three years. Local newspaper articles suggest the TSO temps were housed at Aspen Meadows as far back as 2006.

On Thursday, Aspen Meadows general manager Jud Hawk declined to confirm the total value of the contract with the TSA for the most recent period the workers were housed at his facility. The estimate of $234,576 is based on 12 workers, at $181 per day, for 108 days. The workers are provided with housing and up to $74 per day for meals and incidental expenses. 

Hawk said the resort works with its corporate and government clients to lower the cost of lodging bills and contracts in the event of early checkouts or workforce reductions. “To the best of our knowledge, (the TSO temps) did not vacate their rooms for any long periods of time,” he said. “Once they get a key for (100-plus) days, they don’t come back to the front desk.”

Hawk would not confirm the per-diem room rate of $181 per night provided by TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon. “I would be happy to confirm that they did not pay more than the government per diem for this area,” Hawk said, referring to rates for specific locales related to government-worker travel expenses.

Those rates are set by the General Services Administration. The GSA’s maximum per-diem lodging rate for Aspen from December through March is $424, according to information on its website, which Harmon confirmed.

“Aspen Meadows provided the lowest bid in a proposal that housed 12 officers at $181 per night, significantly below the GSA’s per-diem rate of $424 per night for December through March,” Harmon said. She noted that the GSA’s maximum per-diem rate drops to $181 in April. Therefore, the government was able to get the April rate for its TSO temps during the lion’s share of the winter-spring tourism season.

“I don’t feel comfortable sharing (rate information) about another group’s business,” Hawk said. “I can’t speak on behalf of the government. … I am comfortable with you quoting me that they did not pay above the per-diem (that applies) to the Aspen area.”

Hawk also declined to provide information on the resort’s average room rates during ski season. “It varies,” he said. “I will tell you that we are, in my opinion, Aspen’s most affordable, full-service hotel, offering dining, transportation services and ski valet. Typically, our rates are nowhere near (the rates of the) downtown Aspen properties … but they are above the government’s per-diem rate. Our guests pay more than the government pays, for sure.”

Whether full- or part-time, permanent TSOs serving the Aspen airport receive starting pay of $21.10 per hour, which works out to $43,888 annually based on a 40-hour work week. A pay range for the job listed on the websites linkedin.com and usajobs.gov showed the TSOs could receive as much as $27.80 per hour, depending on experience. The hourly wage includes “locality pay” of 15.37 percent and a “retention incentive” of 35 percent to make the job attractive to would-be employees. “Locality pay” is based on a number of factors, including a community’s cost of living, Harmon said.

“Because of the cost of living in places like Aspen, it is more of a challenge to recruit and retain transportation security officers for the airport,” Harmon said. “That’s why we offer the incentives.” Those incentives are included as part of the pay scale of $21.10 to $27.80 per hour, not added on top of it, she noted.

The 20 permanent TSO positions serving Aspen might be a mix of full-time and part-time employees. “Each position can be either filled by a full-time employee or two part-time employees, so the number of individuals can vary,” Harmon said.

She said the TSA has not considered building affordable-housing units for its permanent and seasonal Aspen workforce because of the high cost. Harmon also said the government agency tries not to look beyond a 5-mile vicinity of the airport for its temporary lodging needs.

“Standard practice is to first send the RFP to lodging facilities within 5 miles of the duty station. If there are not enough responses or viable options within 5 miles, the radius is expanded. TSA always tries to lodge [National Deployment Force] officers together near their duty stations if housing is available within per diem, for a number of reasons, including scheduling flexibility,” she said.

Another factor, Harmon said, is the local public-transportation schedule. For example, TSO temps can’t stay in motels in Glenwood Springs at a cheaper rate and ride a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus to the Aspen airport, “because RFTA would not get officers to the airport early enough in the morning.”

Hawk said the TSO temps make good guests. “They usually get to know all the staff on site, they are very positive, very interactive,” he said.

John Kinney, who became airport director in 2014, said the TSA does a great job at the local transportation facility. The airport doesn’t reimburse the federal government for the TSA, its services and related costs.

“Airports are a national utility” and their security is in the government’s interest, Kinney said, adding that the arrangement with the TSA is similar to that of air traffic controllers, which also are provided by the federal government.

TSOs tend to get a bad rap from the public because of the sometimes intense nature of body and baggage searches, he said. “I think the TSA at this airport does a very nice job,” Kinney said. 

Since the TSA was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, air travel has become significantly safer, he said. “People forget about 9/11,” he said. “The TSA should put up some memorabilia [near security checkpoints] to remind the public about the genesis of the TSA and what happened. 

“Security, by its vary nature, is very inconvenient. There are situations where passengers don’t get the best treatment. If you have an agency and 50,000 employees, you’re going to have problems regardless of what their function is. Is the TSA perfect, absolutely not. But is it an agency that has made the system safer? I believe it has.”