(Juneau Empire File)

My Turn: Alaska’s air travel depends on a fully funded TSA

Day in and day out, the transportation security officers at Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport work to keep the thousands who fly through our airport yearly safe. That means working around the clock to detect weapons, bombs, and make sure contraband isn’t being smuggled in luggage, carry-ons, or on passengers’ persons. It’s not easy work, but the tragic lesson of 9/11 reminds us all of why what TSOs do is so important. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to do that job in Alaska.

Air travel is uniquely important here in Alaska. It’s called the “Last Frontier” for a reason. Air travel is our lifeline. It’s more common here than in any other state to fly from one town to another. In most places in our state, this is the only option in and out, and obviously, air travel is the main way to visit or do business in the Lower 48. Air safety is absolutely essential to our way of life, and the working people who serve as transportation security officers are essential in keeping our skies safe. Alaska’s high cost of living continues to increase while TSO pay here remains low. If action isn’t taken, recruiting much-needed TSOs will become almost impossible, as it is already frustratingly difficult.

Alaska has one of the highest costs of living of any state in the union, and it’s only going up. TSOs are not able to afford to live here and make ends meet at the current pay. Most can’t even find housing, let alone affordable housing. In 2022, Congress passed a significant pay raise for TSOs, which has been a net positive for TSOs nationwide. Despite that positive development, it actually hasn’t been that influential for TSOs in Sitka, as the new pay raise has canceled out Alaska-specific retention pay. We’re still struggling to retain workers. These low wages are costing taxpayers at the federal level as well, as TSOs from the Lower 48 are frequently called in at higher, temporary wages to help fill the gap.

As chief steward for Sitka Airport with AFGE 1121, I’ve watched as TSO turnover has continued to wreak havoc on our airport, especially with female officers. In my six years representing TSOs at Sitka we’ve lost at least 25 female officers, compared to only four male officers. Due to the nature of our work we require officers of both genders for obvious reasons. Increased funding and work rights for TSOs would help make airport security a more appealing prospect for female employees.

Our workplace rights on the job have improved and, while it may be more difficult to see the benefits of the pay raise here in Alaska, it’s a step in the right direction. These changes aren’t locked in if the TSA is not fully funded. That’s why I’m joining my fellow union members across Alaska and encouraging U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola to cosponsor the Fund the TSA Act. Rep. Peltola has been a leader for Alaska’s working people in the past, and we ask her to continue that by supporting this necessary bill.

The Fund the TSA Act would ensure that all funds collected by security fees from passengers are used for their intended purpose: funding the TSA. That may seem like a no-brainer, but since 2013 it’s estimated that billions of dollars have been diverted from their intended use to fund other government projects.

The bill will also adjust the security fee in order to keep up with inflation. A fully funded TSA is one that can properly invest in its employees, fight back against turnover, and encourage TSOs to make a career out of their vital work. The Fund the TSA Act will also make sure that TSOs will never be expected to work for free during a government shutdown like in 2018.

The difficulties faced by TSOs in Alaska affect all of us: our business, our tourism industry, and our communities. I stand with the hundreds of union members at airports across Alaska fighting for a better future for TSOs and safer skies. We need the Fund the TSA Act.

• Breezy Cranford is the Chief Steward for AFGE 1121 at Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport and is the main point of contact with her union for TSOs across Alaska.

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