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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hawai'i flights harbor fireworks

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

More than a third of all reports of fireworks found stashed illegally in airline luggage involved flights arriving in or leaving from Hawai'i, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

There were 77 incidents of fireworks found in luggage in the FAA Western-Pacific region in fiscal year 2006, 26 of them involving passengers flying into or out of Honolulu International Airport.

The region handled roughly 4.9 million commercial flights that year. It is illegal to carry fireworks on domestic flights and flights out of or into the United States.

Although statistics for previous fiscal years were not immediately available yesterday, Hawai'i usually accounts for a "disproportionate" number of firework seizures, said Ian Gregor, communications manager for the FAA Western-Pacific Region.

The availability of fireworks in the Islands and the state's location as a hub for flights coming into and out of Asia and the U.S. Mainland make it a prime location for those looking to buy and transport fireworks.

The FAA's Western region includes the Pacific islands, California, Arizona and Nevada.

"You'd like to think that everybody would understand that fireworks and aircraft are not a good mix, but that's just not the case," said Gregor. "The good news is that of all the people coming into and flying out of Hawai'i, there were only 26 incidents of fireworks violations reported. The bad news is that there were 26 instances of fireworks violations reported. Any one of these incidents could have been disastrous."

The transportation of fireworks on domestic and international flights is prohibited, according to the FAA, and penalties range from a warning letter to a federal prison sentence of up to five years in jail and a $500,000 fine.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, the Transportation Security Administration begins to warn employees to be on the lookout for both legal and illegal fireworks, all of which cannot be carried on domestic or international flights, according to U.S. law.

Screeners are reminded to look for everything from sparklers to firecrackers.

"They are essentially an explosive device," said Sidney A. Hayakawa, the TSA's security director for Honolulu. "It's flammable and it's explosive and that's why you cannot carry it in checked or carry-on luggage, especially during this time of year."

The local illegal fireworks trade heats up shortly after Thanksgiving when local smugglers and criminal entities based in Asia and the U.S. Mainland begin to bring shipments into the state. People passing through the Islands often pick up fireworks and bring them back to the U.S. Mainland, where firework laws are often more stringent.

"You put all that explosive material into a confined space and God forbid something goes wrong because it could be like detonating a bomb on a plane," said Tracy K. Elder, resident agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Honolulu office.

The ATF receives two to three complaints a year, usually during the holidays, about large illegal shipments coming into the Islands from the U.S. Mainland, China, Thailand and other locations in Asia.

Smugglers often bury the illegal fireworks in crates of legal fireworks, then disguise the description on the shipping manifest.

Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.