Securing the future at Sawyer International

Facility moving to higher TSA classification

MARQUETTE — Sawyer International Airport is transitioning to a higher security classification through the Transportation Security Administration, allowing the airport to receive larger scheduled commercial passenger aircraft.

Changes in security procedures will contribute to Sawyer’s change from a category IV classification to a category III, as determined by TSA.

However, the increased level of security and changes in procedures are primarily “behind-the-scenes” and will not be noticeable to passengers at the gate, Sawyer International Airport Manager Duane DuRay said.

“The whole goal of this is to make you, the traveler, safer. But, equally, we don’t want to encumber our passengers with any additional security that affects their overall traveling experience,” DuRay said.

This increased level of security is positioning Sawyer to “compete in aviation industry as an airport,” and will help build it “into more of a regional airport,” DuRay said.

He added that officials are still working through the process.

“This is not one that happens overnight, but we have taken the proper steps to secure a long-term future for Sawyer International with larger aircraft,” DuRay said.

While the airport hasn’t yet received official category III classification from TSA, the airport is currently functioning with the security procedures of a category III airport — this allows 66-seat commercial jets to fly into Sawyer, as these aircraft require category III security operations.

“This whole process began quite a few years back,” DuRay said. “And the level of security that an airport maintains is directly related to the number of commercial airline passengers … and the size of aircraft that function.”

When the transition is complete and approved by TSA, Sawyer International Airport will be the first airport in the Upper Peninsula with a category III security classification, he said.

The “behind-the-scenes” changes in security procedures are key to the transition, DuRay said.

One of the procedural changes relates to vetting and badging of those who have airfield access.

“As a category III, anybody allowed on the airfield with unescorted access requires security vetting,” DuRay said

The requirement is due to federal regulations, DuRay said.

“With this higher level of security, we are held to a higher standard,” he said. “And we are mandated through federal regulations to limit people and access to the airfield unless they have gone through the proper channels.”

DuRay wants airport users who now require badging to understand the reason behind the shift toward increased security and the seriousness of the transition.

“This is a very serious and necessary change … Marquette County and the airport have implemented these changes with the sole intentions of positioning the airport for future growth and sustainability,” he said.

DuRay said the industry is changing and that commercial airlines are shifting toward offering air service in larger, 66-seat planes, which require category III airport security procedures.

If the airport did not make the transition, it would not be able to accept those aircraft, such as some of the commercial planes currently being flown in to Sawyer by Envoy, operated by American Airlines, DuRay said.

DuRay said airport and county officials have been “forward-thinking” in terms of the airport’s security classification, working on the transition for years in advance of receiving large aircraft.

“We started this even before we got the larger aircraft. We already had this in our plans,” he said. “We started the security upgrades, we started adding all the software and security gates and doors and badging. We did all of this, we starting planning for this before.”

While the process of implementing these changes has been long and complex for all parties involved, DuRay said, they are “absolutely critical for the long-term success” of the airport.

“We, as Marquette County and the airport, we want to postion ourselves for the future,” he said.