Originally created 02/03/03

Man works to keep area airport safe



Augusta Regional Airport might not be the biggest or the busiest air hub in the Southeast, but the man whom the federal Transportation Security Administration has put in charge of protecting it says that doesn't mean he can let his guard down.

"Any airport is vulnerable, whether it's a large airport or a small airport," said Joe Armstrong, 55, the agency's deputy federal security director assigned to Augusta. "Which airport would you target?"

It's also Mr. Armstrong's philosophy that if he and his employees are going to swab bags with strips of cloth in search of explosive-making chemicals - and in some cases open the bags and poke through belongings - they can at least be courteous to passengers.

"They're paying for it. It's their taxpayer dollars, and we're here to make it as pleasant as possible," Mr. Armstrong said.

Asked how much federal money is being spent on security at Augusta Regional, Mr. Armstrong said he doesn't know. A spokeswoman for the security administration said the figure is not yet available.

Based on average salary calculations, the agency is paying about $1.6 million a year for 59 employees. For swabbing, the airport has six electronic trace detection machines that cost about $240,000. The cloth strips are fed into the machines to be checked for chemicals.

The Transportation Security Administration was created after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to protect the nation's transportation systems. It has operations set up at commercial airports throughout the country, screening every checked bag for explosives as mandated by the Aviation Security and Transportation Act.

Mr. Armstrong, a bachelor, moved to Augusta from Austin, Texas, in October after answering a job ad on a Web site.

A native of Montreal, he spent 14 years in the Army after crossing the border to sign up for the Vietnam War. He spent 18 years as a Texas peace officer.

With all the technology at the airport, Mr. Armstrong said, he doesn't see a need to profile passengers. In addition to the bag-swabbing, passengers must walk through metal detectors. Computers determine whose bags get opened.

"We're a melting pot of people," Mr. Armstrong said. "I'm going to treat everyone the same."

JOE ARMSTRONG

AGE: 55

OCCUPATION: The Transportation Security Administration's deputy federal security director assigned to Augusta

FAMILY: Two daughters: Christa Shepard, 29, of Plano, Texas; Kathleen Armstrong, 27, of San Antonio

QUOTE: "Security has really tightened. The people of Augusta have been very patient. We haven't gotten that many complaints."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.



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