Preparing to board a commercial flight at the airport in Wolf Point or half a dozen other Montana communities is a throwback to a simpler time: no metal detector, no baggage screening and it's OK to leave your shoes on.
Travelers on Big Sky Airlines' 19-passenger planes are not screened until reaching the usual destination, Billings Logan International Airport, where the federal Transportation Security Administration conducts security screenings. The simplicity of these rural boardings may change.
TSA coverage is being considered for seven Montana airports in the federally subsidized Essential Air Service system, TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said in a phone interview. Payne said there is no timeline for a decision on whether to put the TSA at the airports, which are in Havre, Lewistown, Wolf Point, Sidney, Glasgow, Miles City and Glendive.
''We're along the northern border,'' said John Rabenberg, chairman of the Montana Essential Air Service Task Force. ''If we're going to fight terrorism along the northern border, shouldn't we have TSA at the airports?''
Payne said she did not have information about the extent of TSA's presence at small airports in other states.
The agency's review of the seven in Montana is long-running and what remains in the TSA's evaluation is ''just housekeeping,'' said Rabenberg, of Fort Peck. At least some of the airports are likely to find the TSA moving in this year with agency personnel or contractors, he said. In either case, he expects the work to be just part-time, because of light passenger traffic.
Payne said that altogether fewer than 10,000 passengers passed through the seven airports in 2006. The numbers don't diminish the need for the TSA, Rabenberg said. ''We've been very lucky'' not to have had a security incident, he added.
In Wolf Point, the terminal at L.M. Clayton Airport recently expanded by about 20 percent, making room for eventual TSA operations, airport manager Rick Isle said.
The request for TSA coverage at the airports originated with Big Sky Airlines, spokeswoman Molly Bare confirmed.
Once passengers arrive at Billings Logan, airline personnel take them and their luggage to security checkpoints before connecting flights may be boarded.
TSA coverage also is desired by Great Lakes Airlines, which is preparing to take the place of Big Sky at the seven Montana airports in February, said Chuck Howell, chief executive for the Wyoming-based carrier.