Federal investigation of airport security leads to extensive and costly fixes

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Federal authorities caught major security flaws at Hawaii’s biggest airport. The state is spending millions of dollars to fix them, and there’s still a threat of fines and penalties. Always Investigating has details.

KHON2 found out the true scope of problems beyond just mass badge re-issuing that was reported on before. It turns out that a Transportation Security Administration inspection at Honolulu’s airport became a full blown investigation and civil penalty case after authorities found a multitude of problems and serious security gaps.

Last summer KHON reported on a mass overhaul in the airport identification badge procedure. More than 22,000 badges had to be reissued in response to what the state Department of Transportation referred to back then as a TSA audit.

But we’ve found out that later last summer, the DOT got hit with a “Letter of Investigation” from the TSA outlining about 100 violations of a wide range of federal security regulations. We’re not showing the document itself due to the sensitive nature of the specific examples.

The badges were part of the problem, such as IDs still being held by people with invalid background checks or who had been since disqualified, badge-holders who bypassed security then boarded as passengers, and infrequent no-fly crosschecks with the badge-holders list.

“Obviously somebody who has bad intent for an airliner is not necessarily going to get on the airplane as a passenger,” said aviation expert Peter Forman. “If they somehow get allowed to be an employee or something, you’ve got to make sure that you can keep the bad guys under control.”

But the problems go way beyond ID badges, with categories of violations including perimeter security, training, key control and audits, access control measures and Airport Security Plan (ASP) flaws.

Dangerous instruments weren’t always tightly controlled in the sterile areas, things like keeping track of knives in restaurants and lounges. Unattended tools such as hammers and wrenches were found. Deliveries – vendors, vans or their merchandise — weren’t always inspected by the book.

The feds found access control systems and security doors had frequent outages. Door alarm response time was too slow. It was unknown if keys were missing or who had what assigned to them. Unauthorized-area entries were all too easy for the inspectors. Sterile-area doors were found unsecured in many places. Even around the exterior vehicle gates had breach points either from being latched open or by posted guards letting people walk through.

These are all stark reminders to passengers that airport security goes way beyond the tsa line and whether your shoes are on or your toothpaste tube is small enough.

“It’s a much tougher situation that most people realize,” Forman said. “For the traveling public if you see something that looks like a weak spot, bring it to the airport’s attention.”

The feds demanded the state DOT fix it all or face fines topping $7 million, and gave them a short window to do it. That was last summer.

The DOT initially told the state procurement office it could face $286 million in fines if it got dinged for every badge, and then estimated a $25 million penalty if violations weren’t corrected.

DOT wouldn’t talk to me on-camera citing security sensitivity but said in a statement: HDOT is in compliance with all federal requirements and completed the airport employee badging process… we will audit the badge and record keeping systems every year to ensure compliance is maintained.”

KHON2 asked about the looming penalty costs, and the DOT responded: “HDOT and the federal government continue discussions regarding potential fines or settlements.”

The state just recently signed a $2 million contractor for security consulting. KHON2 asked why, if they’re already back in compliance?

DOT responded: “The contract supports HDOT to ensure it is and remains in compliance and will help improve the Airport Security Plan and the Pass and ID Office moving forward with the newest technology.”

“Once the scrutiny comes on an airport for security, it is just a race to get into compliance,” Forman said, “and it’s got to spend the money, it’s got to put the effort in, it’s got to make it No. 1 priority.”

In asking the state procurement office to sign off on its no-bid consultant contract, the DOT stated: “Recent events at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport has (sic) put additional pressure on the HDOT-A to address TSA’s security concerns in an expeditious manner.” Recently the airport has experienced everything from repeated power problems to an emergency evacuation over a false-shooter scare.  

“It’s very important that we keep the power on and avoid any kind of issues such as somebody running through a checkpoint, all these things hugely important,” Forman said. “As painful as it is it’s also a learning experience.”

In that same procurement document for the contractor, the DOT said it needed the multimillion-dollar help because “the corrective action that the TSA raised in their letter to HDOT-A will require the expertise of a security consultant, as the HDOT-A doesn’t possess the necessary resources or manpower to accomplish.”

“The problem is so many of these airports were built for a different level of security,” Forman said, “and now when you try to make them all consistent for this level of security it is a lot of work.”

As for what still has to be done for the feds to deem Hawaii in full compliance, the TSA told KHON2 that their ongoing civil penalty process is administrative in nature and not public. We’ll follow up with TSA and the DOT on when everything gets resolved and at what final cost.

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