Rapid growth in Hawaii arrivals stresses Safe Travels coronavirus screening

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — A recent and rapid spike in visitor and local spring break travel has stressed the Safe Travels arrival screening process.

Always Investigating looks into the problem and possible solutions.

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KHON2 saw a somewhat chaotic arrival system first-hand on Hawaii’s busiest weekend since before the pandemic began after hearing complaints from locals and visitors.

Always Investigating wanted to know: How are they going to fix the arrival process in time for a summer rush that could far surpass this spring break spike?

Travel to and between the Hawaiian islands has skyrocketed in recent weeks, nearing 30,000 on Saturday, March 20, which is almost pre-pandemic level, and all of them needed to squeeze through a post-arrival pinch-point: the Safe Travels screening that makes sure only COVID-negative people are checked off for quarantine exemptions.

Not too bad when it was 5,000, 10,000 and even 15,000 thousand visitors a day — but 28,000?

“We haven’t had that surge in over a year,” said Sheri Kajiwara, Safe Travels Hawaii special projects administrator.

That surge is exposing everything from inefficiencies and process gaps to traveler and staff confusion, even outbursts by workers struggling to keep up the aloha.

“We’re starting to see burnout,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, “and if we see burnout, we’re not going to get good results from our security folks at the airport.”

KHON2 witnessed overwhelmed workers shouting at passengers and physically confronting seemingly cooperative travelers from several arriving and departing flights who were all mixed into a terminal not set up with clear traffic pathways or directives.

“The purpose of Securitas is there for security purposes, and not really part of the screening process,” Kajiwara said of the overwhelmed weekend. “We should have a process that operates efficiently at the time that you arrive. They were a Band-Aid to help with the overload, and we will develop a process that will address that problem.”

It is a problem that includes so many people, they are forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder for quite awhile before the official screening station, apologizing to each other for getting well within 6 feet.

“They (security officials) were there trying to help fix things because the line was so long, to help direct,” Kajiwara said. “We have to do a better job with that, and I promise you, we will. There was a certain point where when you got there, we separated the line (saying) ‘bands this way, no bands this way.’ “

“Bands” — meaning wristbands — are being coordinated ahead of arrival by four out of the six major airlines flying into Hawaii right now and are helping thousands of travelers a day skip the QR code checkpoint.

“It’s like normal travel in days of old,” said Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. “You just basically go to the baggage claim area, and you’re out of there. I think what really needs to be done is more people need to take advantage of what we call the pre-departure document check.”

Hawaiian, Alaska, United and Southwest Airlines are already offering it. Alaska Airlines is up to 90% of passengers using the bands, Hannemann said. The State tells KHON2 they are still working on Delta and American Airlines.

“We are now in discussion with them to try to get them on board,” Kajiwara said. “The plan was to get all six on board before summer, so that we can better address that summer surge that we’re all talking about.”

The State and private sectors are looking at other ways to get by, like possibly staggering flight arrival times to avoid peaks and backlogs. The lieutenant governor is pushing for neighbor island quarantine to be lifted, which would free up resources for mainland and international screening.

“If people have been vaccinated, they should right now this moment be allowed to travel interisland without any worry,” Green said, “and frankly, it’s not really providing any extra protection because the positivity rates are very similar across the state.”

As for lowering the stress at the arrival areas: “We need to treat our residents and our visitors with that sense of aloha respect, and welcome that we’re so known for,” Kajiwara said, “and I’m going to work very hard with training, management, supervision, and just reinforcement of that messaging with everyone that’s involved with Safe Travels.”

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