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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 31, 2001

Security lapse throws airport into turmoil

 •  Airports have history of errors
 •  'Confusion' at airport angers passengers

Sheriffs keep an eye on the crowd outside the Hawaiian Airlines terminal as hundreds of passengers are cleared out of the airport and off departing planes to be subject to a thorough rescreening.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

By Scott Ishikawa and Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writers

A routine security test gone awry threw Honolulu International Airport into turmoil for several hours yesterday, shutting down flights, delaying thousands of passengers and calling into question the efficiency of post-Sept. 11 safety measures.

A private security guard screening hand-carried baggage apparently reacted too slowly to a computer-generated test image of a gun on an X-ray machine, touching off a chain of reactions that resulted in the airport closing for about two hours, officials said.

The situation was described as a "security breach" and "false alarm." Before it was over, the main and interisland terminals were evacuated, passengers on planes ordered back to the building, flight schedules disrupted for the rest of the day, and officials left to explain what had caused the confusion.

The Wackenhut security guard and her supervisor working at an Hawaiian Airlines interisland terminal checkpoint were removed from airport duties by the FAA, pending an investigation. Hawaiian Airlines, which is responsible for security provided by its contractor, could face a federal fine of $11,000 per violation, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Hundreds of passengers were delayed at Honolulu Airport after a slow reaction by a guard set off security alarms.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I guess it comes with the territory," sighed New Yorker Harold Sulger, waiting for a Delta flight to Los Angeles with his wife, Elisabeth, after the excitement had died down. "But this is how it's going to be from now on."

The guard did not react immediately to a so-called false threat image of a gun that is projected several times at random during screeners' shifts to test their alertness, said Allen Agor, FAA security manager in Honolulu.

A three-minute delay before the guard's supervisor notified an FAA security officer allowed a man mistakenly believed to be carrying the gun to walk away, Agor said.

The airport's heightened security system, put in place after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, then kicked into high gear.

As government, law enforcement and private guards hunted for the man, the terminal areas were ordered cleared of passengers, who had to wait outside and then go through a lengthy rescreening. The man, whom the FAA said is not suspected of any wrongdoing, was found about 15 minutes later carrying only a jacket and CD player into the main terminal, where he had gone to board a Hawaiian Airlines charter flight to Las Vegas.

The flight eventually departed with the passenger aboard, after officials satisfied themselves that he had not brought a gun through the checkpoint. Officials then double-checked video of the screening and realized their mistake, Agor said.

"Even if there was a possibility it was a threat image projection, we didn't want to take a chance in these times, especially during the holidays, to ensure maximum security," Agor said. "There was a limited window of opportunity for us to make sure airport security was intact."

Agor said officials evacuated passengers who already had boarded their flights to make sure the suspect had not handed the weapon to another passenger.

FAA officials said they considered the incident an official security breach and are likely to hold the airline responsible for it, under normal FAA guidelines.

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Keoni Wagner said yesterday the problem "sounds as though it is a case of isolated human error" and not a flaw in the security system.

He said several thousand Hawaiian passengers were affected as schedules were pushed back by an hour or two throughout the day and into the night.

While changes in procedures at the airline's checkpoints are "always possible," Wagner said, the company is waiting for its contractor, Wackenhut, to complete its investigation and make a report.

The FAA has used false images in X-ray machines to test screeners for more than a year, Agor said.

Yesterday's trouble began at 9 a.m., and the airport's main and

interisland terminals were closed by 9:15, said Marilyn Kali, spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department. The interisland terminal reopened at 10:55 a.m., and the rest of the airport reopened 20 minutes later.

In all, about 4,000 passengers were affected by the evacuation, Kali said.

She said five commercial planes were either evacuated when they were ready to depart or kept on the runway after arriving. Some flights were delayed more than four hours, and some passengers had to wait three hours to re-enter the terminal, airline officials said.

There were seven international and 15 interisland flights scheduled during the shutdown, and ripple effects were felt across the state.

In Hilo, no planes arrived or left for nearly four hours. Passengers were told only that their flights had been delayed by "unforeseen circumstances."

It was a long wait for Honolulu attorney Kenneth Kupchak, and even more so for the kitten he and his wife were taking to their second home in Volcano. Kupchak said passengers were mostly "polite despite being put out."

In Maui, the event created irritation not only for travelers but for those at the airport picking up friends and relatives. In the baggage claim area, Remy Holwick of Kula was growing annoyed waiting for a friend to arrive on an Aloha Airlines flight. "I've been holding this lei for an hour and it's about to fall apart,'' she said.

A similar incident happened yesterday in Denver, where one of the airport's three concourses was evacuated briefly after a security worker became concerned that a passenger had not been properly screened.

Advertiser staff writers Walter Wright, Timothy Hurley and Hugh Clark and The Associated Press contributed to this report.