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

Airports have history of errors

 •  Security lapse throws airport into turmoil
 •  'Confusion' at airport angers passengers

By Frank Cho
Advertiser Staff Writer

For more than a decade, security screeners at Hawai'i's airports routinely have failed to detect bombs, guns, grenades and other weapons carried through checkpoints by undercover federal inspectors.

Millern Jarrett-Thorpe from Atlanta, right, sits with his daughter Cymill, 10, and son Millern, 7, as they wait out a lengthy delay for a vacation flight to Kona.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

From 1990 to August 2001, federal inspectors cited nearly 400 lapses in security by private firms hired by airlines, and issued 190 fines totaling more than a half million dollars, according to an Advertiser analysis of federal records.

Most incidents occurred at Honolulu International Airport in the past three years. Since Jan. 1, 1998, there have been 138 lapses in security at Honolulu airport, with fines totaling $265,350, according to the review of Federal Aviation Administration records.

Security lapses have included everything from screeners failing to detect simulated pipe bombs and grenades to unauthorized personnel gaining entry to secure areas of the Islands' airports, according to the data.

The FAA does not have data available for incidents since the Sept. 11 attacks, and declined to discuss specific cases. But officials noted that since the hijackings, all airports have beefed up security, adding National Guard troops, bomb-sniffing dogs and more screeners.

Still, the historical look at security lapses highlights the difficulty of monitoring the state's airports, where on any given day more than 200 people from four security companies, law enforcement from city, state and federal agencies and the National Guard try to tackle a massive job. The state's biggest airport, Honolulu International, is the 36th busiest of 280 airports worldwide and has more than 22 million passengers filing through its gates each year.

"Airport security is an ongoing process, as well as improving the screeners," said Joe Guyton,

Honolulu International Airport's airline security coordinator, representing about 20 carriers. "Unfortunately, as long as you have a

human element and a mechanical element, you will have some mistakes. We run tests daily. If you hear about hundreds of reported failures, then multiply that by 10s and you'll get the number of incidents that were caught."

Airlines are responsible for screening passengers and overseeing the private companies they hire to do the job. Airports, meanwhile, are responsible for keeping the facilities secure.

Six-year-old Courtney Oien of Sacramento finds the wait at Honolulu airport tedious, even with a furry friend.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

According to the FAA enforcement records, one of Hawai'i's most recent significant lapses occurred in May 2000, when a federal inspector carried a hidden hand grenade through a United Airlines security checkpoint in Honolulu. The airline was fined $6,500, according to FAA records.

Hawaiian, which was involved in yesterday's incident at Honolulu airport, has paid two of the biggest fines in the state in the past two decades, FAA records show. The local carrier was fined $22,500 in March 1998 when its screeners failed to follow proper procedures in searching a carry-on bag. In September 1988, Hawaiian was fined $35,000 when an unauthorized person was discovered in a secure area.

Keoni Wagner, a spokesman for Hawaiian Airlines, said yesterday he was not familiar with those cases, but noted that security has been increased significantly in recent months.

"I know that screening procedures have changed and become more intensive (since Sept. 11)," Wagner said.

The FAA does not reveal how many security tests it performs each year, so it is difficult to determine the rate of success of Hawai'i airport screeners. But a report by the General Accounting Office in June 2000 said screeners nationwide had an average success rate of 80 percent, down from about 87 percent in 1978.

One of the challenges, according to the GAO report, is the high turnover rate that accompanies low wages. In Hawai'i, annual turnover of airport screeners is about 37 percent, according to the GAO report. That compares favorably with 375 percent at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, and 126 percent nationwide.

"It's all about hiring the right people and training them and overseeing them on a daily basis," Guyton said. "There is no one simple solution as long as you're dealing with machines and people. Over a period of time, with enough testing and enough training, we'd like to think that we can perfect it."

Other FAA data show security screeners catching a number of passenger violations in Hawai'i.

Since January 1998, there have been at least 93 cases in which screeners and security officers detected guns and other weapons carried by passengers, according to the records. Fifty-one of those resulted in fines to travelers totaling nearly $9,000.

In 2000 alone, security screeners at Hawai'i airports detected passengers carrying guns at least 22 times and detected at least one explosive. The last recorded case was in August 2000, when a passenger tried to carry a gun through security. He was fined $75.

Such detection is likely to increase. On Nov. 19, President Bush signed the Transportation Security Act, making airport security a direct federal responsibility. The FAA said it would hire 600 to 800 additional airport screeners in Hawai'i.

Since Sept. 11, airport officials said, FAA testing of screeners has declined while the focus shifts to upgrading security procedures and equipment.

"The FAA are much more in an inspection mode rather than a testing mode," said Lance Kaonohi, state security manager for Honolulu airport.

Kenneth Kamahele, airport operations security manager for AKAL Security, which provides traffic and law enforcement for Honolulu airport, said his daily staffing has doubled from 51 to nearly 100 officers because of increased FAA requirements.

Before Sept. 11, the most frequent security lapses at Hawai'i airports involved passenger screening procedures, according to the FAA data. With increased scrutiny since the terrorist attacks, those lapses have decreased, said Allen Agor, federal security manager for Honolulu airport.

"We don't talk about internal mechanisms we use — but I can say that Honolulu airport ranks up there in terms of being one of the better airports in the country," Agor said. "We probably have less violations than other similar-sized airports."

Guyton agreed: "We'd like to think we are doing a good job. We have thousands of bags going through the airport every day, and we're going to have shortcomings. People need to put things in perspective."

Reach Frank Cho at 525-8088 or fcho@honoluluadvertiser.com.