Monday, December 31, 2001

Security snafu
shuts airport

Passengers are delayed 2 hours
after the image of a handgun
appears on a checkpoint screen

By Nelson Daranciang

Honolulu Airport was shut down for nearly two hours yesterday after the first security breach there since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

A screener at a security checkpoint allowed passengers to go through after spotting an image of a handgun on an X-ray monitor.

The airport was reopened after a search of both the interisland and main terminals failed to locate a gun, and it was determined that the gun was probably a false image generated by the machine to test the alertness of screeners.

As many as 2,000 travelers were evacuated from the main terminal and 1,500 from the interisland terminal during the shutdown. Passengers who had already boarded planes were forced to de-plane. All had to go back through security checkpoints to return to the gates and planes.

The shutdown pushed back interisland flights statewide about 90 minutes for the rest of the day. Some flights from the main terminal were also delayed.

"It was a series of mistakes that ended with this big booboo," said Allen Agor, Federal Aviation Administration federal security manager.

The screener spotted the image of a gun in a bag at an interisland passenger checkpoint at 9 a.m. and immediately notified her supervisor, Agor said.

For about the past year, X-ray machines across the country have been programed to display a "Threat Image Projection" about three times during a screener's shift to test his alertness, Agor said.

At that point, security procedures require halting traffic through the checkpoint, freezing the machine and notifying the law enforcement officer, in this case an Akal Security employee. After performing other procedures with the X-ray machine, a message will appear on the screen indicating that this was a test.

"That wasn't completed because of the excitement (with a screener believing), 'I think I have a weapon,'" Agor said.

He said there was a three-minute delay in notifying the law enforcement officer.

By that time the traveler believed to have been carrying the bag had left the checkpoint.

Security officials then scrambled to find the traveler and the bag. Officials located the man within 15 minutes at the main terminal about to board a Hawaiian Airlines charter flight for Las Vegas. But he was carrying only a jacket and a compact disc player.

Airport officials shut down the terminals at 9:15 a.m. as security personnel searched the lobby and gate areas for the weapon.

Security officials determined the gun was probably a test image after looking at surveillance video.

"Surveillance video confirmed that he did not have a bag when he passed through the security checkpoint at the interisland terminal, then walked over to the overseas terminal," Agor said.

The man cooperated with officials and was allowed to board his flight. He is not suspected of any criminal activity.

However, the screener and her supervisor are no longer allowed to perform security screening at the airport until they have been retrained and recertified. Both are employees of Wackenhut, which is under contract with Hawaiian Airlines to operate the checkpoint. The airline faces an $11,000 fine if the FAA confirms that security was indeed breached.

An hour and a half after the airport was reopened, there were still hundreds of people lined up outside the interisland terminal waiting to get to the gates. The lines spilled over the curb and blocked four lanes of traffic outside the terminal. Some travelers had to get through two lines before they could get to the gates -- one for the check-in counters and the other for the security checkpoints.

"Checking in was no problem, but then everybody had to wait for security," said Alan Matsushima, who missed his 11 a.m. flight for Kauai.

Wes Araneta had just turned in his bags at the checkout counter at 10:15 a.m. when he was told he would have to leave the terminal.

"I said, 'Give me my bags, then, so I can get a hotel,' and she said, 'Oh, no, too late already,'" said Araneta, who was in good spirits. He said he felt bad for travelers who were forced off planes they had already boarded.

Five flights were ready for takeoff when the airport was shut down, said Marilyn Kali, state Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

"We didn't allow any of those flights to leave until we screened all of those passengers. We also didn't allow any passengers on any arriving flights to deplane. We held them on the plane," Kali said.

The shutdown forced Aloha Airlines to cancel one interisland round-trip flight and pushed the rest of the flights back about an hour and a half the rest of the day, said airline spokesman Stu Glauberman.

Hawaiian Airlines flights were also delayed an average of between 60 and 90 minutes, said Keoni Wagner, Hawaiian Airlines spokesman. He said some mainland flights were held back to allow passengers to make their connecting flights.

Both airlines expect their schedules to return to normal today.

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