TSA security at Honolulu International Airport - Photo: Emily Metcalf

BY JIM DOOLEY – A new federal study of security failures at Honolulu International Airport in 2010 partially blames Transportation Security Administration officers for the lapses but mostly faults top TSA managers for poor planning and supervision.

Photo: Emily Metcalf

TSA has adopted new measures to prevent a recurrence of the problem, said the report, written by the Office of Inspector General in the Department of Homeland Security.

The study was undertaken after Congressional committees received tips that TSA baggage screeners at the airport “dramatically failed in their performance of critical transportation security screening responsibilities.”

The Inspector General found that TSA screeners at one Honolulu overseas terminal station were not performing explosives detection tests on baggage during high-volume periods of travel.

“In December 2010, a confidential source notified TSA officials and provided video evidence showing some TSOs (transportation security offiders) failing to follow required screening procedures at the Overseas Terminal (Lobby 4) screening location at HNL,” the report , released September 27, said.

Some TSO’s skipped mandatory explosives detection tests of baggage and falsely claimed that the tests had been performed, the report said.

“The responsibility for screening the baggage belongs to the individual TSOs,” the report found, but noted that the “situation might not have occurred if TSA:

  • Developed changes in screening procedures comprehensively and thoroughly evaluated the effects of such changes;
  • Supervisors provided better oversight of TSOs and baggage screening operations; and
  • Provided screening operations at the affected location with adequate staff and screening equipment in a timely manner. Without ensuring that baggage is screened as appropriate, TSA risks the safety of the traveling public by allowing unscreened baggage on passenger aircraft.”

The Inspector General found that TSA officials adopted special short-cuts for explosives detection tests during peak traffic times at airports but did not adequately review their effectiveness at airports, like Honolulu, with the highest volumes of passenger traffic .

“TSA headquarters was aware that airports with high annual numbers of passengers boarding aircraft had difficulty screening checked baggage in a timely manner using ETD (explosive trace detection) screening protocols. Yet TSA did not optimize its use of the available information and data to predict and prepare for staffing demands,” the report said.

TSA’s pilot testing of new ETD protocols did not include significant testing of Category X airports, which have the largest number of passengers boarding aircraft.

At least 5 million passengers use Category X airports annually.

Because TSA inadequately tested its ETD protocol at such airports, “it did not know whether these larger airports had difficulties screening checked baggage using the proposed new ETD screening protocol,” the Inspector General found.

TSA did not take into account the extra time necessary to screen “balikbayan boxes” – larges parcels commonly used

Balikbayan boxes (Courtesy TSA Inspector General)

to ship goods to the Philippines, the report said.

“According to TSA management at HNL, some passengers who travel to Asian nations check very large boxes, called Balikbayan boxes. Measuring 18″x 18″x 24″, these densely packed boxes are much larger than the 8″x 12″x 20″ bag TSA used to estimate the length of time needed to screen using ETD. There was no study to evaluate the effect of these boxes,” the report found.

The Inspector General also found that TSA did not supply enough explosives detection machines to handle the heavy volume of passenger baggage at Honolulu.

“HNL requested an EDS machine for the screening area in August 2008 because of safety concerns at the affected location,” said the report.

The report noted that “safety is the over arching concern related to this request. More specifically, the check-in area of Lobby 4 is very congested because many of the flights are scheduled around the same time, causing the baggage to accumulate in a confined area. This causes a safety issue for the passengers as well as the Officers,” the OIG reported.

New equipment eventually was delivered – 18 months behind schedule, said the OIG.

Recommendations to avert future security lapses at the airport have been adopted and their effectiveness is still under study, the OIG said.

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Jim Dooley joined the Hawaii Reporter staff as an investigative reporter in October 2010. Before that, he has worked as a print and television reporter in Hawaii since 1973, beginning as a wire service reporter with United Press International. He joined Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, working as general assignment and City Hall reporter until 1978. In 1978, he moved to full-time investigative reporting in for The Advertiser; he joined KITV news in 1996 as investigative reporter. Jim returned to Advertiser 2001, working as investigative reporter and court reporter until 2010. Reach him at Jim@hawaiireporter.com