Sunday, October 14, 2001

Interisland airport angst
Remember 9-11-01

Isle passengers submit to
longer waits and frequent checks
in a time of high security

By Rod Antone


That's the amount of time it took to find interisland terminal parking, get to the Aloha Airlines ticket counter, go through Honolulu Airport security and board an 11:20 a.m. flight to Maui on Thursday.

"I expected a line but I didn't expect to be checked entering the parking lot and I didn't expect that the parking lot would be so full," said Hawaii Kai resident Tennyson Lum Jr. "Otherwise I would have been here 20 minutes ago."

For what state transportation officials say are "security reasons," the fourth floor of the interisland parking garage is partially closed, meaning fewer parking spaces. The lot is full for the most part, and Lum and other travelers have to search for 20 minutes before finding a free space.

Then it was another 20-minute wait to purchase tickets or check in baggage.

"This is the longest line I've ever seen," said Irene Brezel of Washington state, formerly Irene Arashiro of Kauai. The line for all of Aloha's interisland travelers stretched about 80 yards across the terminal, almost intersecting with the line leading to the security checkpoint.

"Well, you have to accept all this precaution," said her sister Carol Lewis of California, formerly Carol Arashiro of Kauai. "It's better for us anyway."

In Honolulu, newlywed Stephanie Werner, at left, with
husband Christian Werner wait in line to go to Kona.

Most people in line seemed to feel the same way as Lewis, with their faces drawn with quiet patience and understanding. Toward the middle of the line a group of volunteer senior citizens tried to help pass the time by singing Hawaiian songs and hula dancing before a captive audience.

People strummed ukuleles, gray-haired aunties and grandmas swayed and the smiles began.

"This is great! They're so cute," said Myla Niederauer, a Delta Airlines flight attendant who was vacationing with her husband Chris. Referring to mainland airports, she added, "The mood here in Hawaii is so different, much lighter."

Maybe. But it doesn't mean that when the ticket counter agent asks, "Were your belongings with you at all times?" or "Have any strangers given you anything?" that it's OK to joke around.

And definitely DO NOT answer "Sure, bin Laden gave me something," the way DOT officials said someone at Honolulu Airport did last week.

"Unfortunately we did have an instance just like that," said Federal Aviation Administration Pacific Representative Tweet Coleman. Though Coleman could not give specifics about the incident, she said in general terms that "if somebody makes a stupid comment, they will be pulled aside and detained, the bags will be pulled and there's a very good chance they will miss the flight."

Department of Transportation officials said about 20 people so far have been detained and questioned for making such comments at Honolulu Airport, though there have been no arrests. Other airport utterances that have drawn the attention of security and other passengers include overheard statements such as "people are going to die today" and "planes are going down."

Transportation officials said of the 20 people detained, some were "joking," others were "out there" and two were drunk. Whatever their state of mind, Coleman said according to U.S. code such comments can be considered "false information" and "threats" and therefore punishable to up to a $25,000 fine or five years in jail.

BUT... if one manages to get by the ticket counter without scaring the bejeebers out of everyone, then it's off to the first security checkpoint where metal detectors and pat-downs await. The checkpoint line about 10:10 a.m. Thursday moved quicker than the line to the ticket counter, and within four or five minutes passengers are emptying their pockets into trays and sending belongings through X-ray machines.

Once travelers pass through metal detectors, airport security personnel are waiting to check everything else, from what's between the pages of newspapers and magazines to what's under polo shirt collars.

SUSPICIOUS LOOKS are given when a cellular phone can't be turned on and batteries are checked to see if they are real. All the while two Hawaii National Guardsmen watch with M-16s slung over their shoulders.

After making it through security, Star-Bulletin photographer Craig Kojima turned around to try and take a picture when a guardsman said politely, "Sorry sir, no photographs in the sterile area."

How can you argue with a man with an automatic weapon?

The photograph is forgotten, and now attention is on another security checkpoint line for those Aloha Airline passengers whose flights are departing from gates 50 to 54. Because those gates are in a part of the airport that is also accessible to domestic and international flights, Aloha said, another checkpoint is necessary.

And it's even more thorough than the first one, if that's possible.

Pockets are again emptied, carry-ons this time are searched by hands in white rubber gloves and passengers stand still again while being patted down and scanned with hand-held metal detectors.

"Can you turn over your belt buckle please," said an airport security employee named Jessica after the metal sets off her "wand." Jessica asked again if belongings were with people at all times and if strangers gave anyone anything.

Yes and no, people answer again.

On Thursday the second checkpoint en route to gates 50 to 54 takes five to six minutes. However, Aloha officials said the wait is far worse on the weekends and that because everything is checked by hand, some passengers are stuck in lines for more than an hour.

"Security procedures are resulting in delays, and the passengers have to understand that security and safety come first and on-time reliability comes second," said Aloha spokesman Stu Glauberman. But Glauberman said a problem Aloha can address comes in the morning, when passengers arriving for the 5:20 a.m. flight cannot check in until 4:30 a.m., when the Aloha Airlines ticket counter opens up.

On Thursday Aloha Airlines workers said because people could not check in 90 minutes before their flight was scheduled to depart, they did not make it through security in time. As a result about four flights were delayed while waiting for passengers.

Glauberman said to avoid more delays, Aloha's ticket counter will open at 4:15 a.m. starting tomorrow.

A visible National Guard presence monitors airport security
checkpoints at Honolulu International Airport and other
airports statewide. This photo was taken Sept. 15.

"We are continually changing as required," said Glauberman. "We're taking it one day at a time."

Glauberman said federal guidelines regarding airport security are constantly evolving. Yesterday National Guard presence increased at airports on Maui, in Kona and Hilo while Lihue Airport got its armed guard members today.

BUT ON THURSDAY, there was no sign of guardsmen at Kahului Airport on Maui. Arriving from Honolulu on Aloha's 11:20 a.m. flight, those familiar with the airport at first glance saw an otherwise empty airport, where the only sign of heightened security was an increase of security guards patrolling the area.

However, the signs were there, even on Maui, especially if one looked for them.

Kahului Airport restaurants serve food with plastic forks and spoons only, with plastic knives available upon request. Checking in at the Aloha Airlines ticket counter in Kahului, ticket agents marked down flight information on some ticket jackets in green and others in red. Later FAA officials explained that airline computers randomly selected some people to be checked again after the security checkpoint, while others were allowed through to wait at the gate.

Unfortunately some passengers didn't know that.

After passing through Kahului's first security checkpoint, another checkpoint was formed in front of the glass doors that lead to Gate 13, where Aloha's Flight 227 departed for Oahu at 2 p.m. Those with red-inked ticket jackets formed a line and waited to have their belongings checked by hand.

All of their belongings, with no exceptions.

"They were pretty immaculate about everything, but they were opening up (containers with) my diaphragms and retainers and stuff," said a woman who only wanted to be identified as Mrs. Ellis.

"Why? Because we're haole? Because we paid cash for our tickets and the terrorists paid cash for their tickets?"

FAA officials say they are requesting that airlines do random checks though "we cannot dictate how they do them," said Coleman.

"I know it's important, but they should check everybody," said Ellis. "This way makes me feel like I was discriminated against.

"I just feel like a criminal."

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin