Why screening is drastically different flying in vs. out of the state

Coqui frogs, Little Fire Ants and Coconut Rhinoceros Beetles are just a few of the invasive species that could do major damage to Hawaii’s ecosystem. But the last line of defense to stop pests at the airport could leave Hawaii vulnerable.

Frequent travelers are very familiar with the agriculture checks at the airport. Before passengers fly out of Honolulu, workers scan all checked baggage.

But flying into Hawaii, passengers are simply required to fill out a form and drop items in an amnesty bin. It’s been like that for more than 100 years.

“I started in 1981 and we had counters all in front of the airlines and opened the baggage, went through it,” said Dorothy Alontaga, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. “I’m glad we don’t do that anymore.”

But flying into Hawaii, passengers are simply required to fill out a form and drop items in an amnesty bin.

“The whole honor system, people might be bringing stuff in,” said Guam resident Kevin Quenga. “It’s just a piece of paper.”

“It’s not very thorough at all, because I could have had anything in my bag, and unless it’s a weapon or something, they’re not going to care,” said Guam resident Stephen Quimby.

The agriculture form has been around in one form or another for a really long time, including when the first men on the moon passed through Honolulu.

Passengers admit they follow the rules in varying degrees.

“I’ll tell you this. People don’t fill out the form. Even I don’t fill out the form,” said Calfornia resident Bree Yap. “If I’m sleeping, I don’t fill out the form, or I say I’m with this person.”

Makiki resident George Nepomuceno says the current procedure isn’t enough to prevent unwanted items from sneaking through. “It’s only a form,” he said. “They’ve got to tighten the inspection downstairs.”

Darcy Oishi with the state Dept. of Agriculture said there’s a difference between federal and state mandates. Officials with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture are on the lookout for specific things, like fruit flies, that they don’t want on the mainland, while Hawaii’s screening is more of a catchall system, he said.

“Unfortunately, with our staffing changes and due to reduction in forces a few years back, we don’t have a night shift anymore at the airport. We’re not able to meet all flights,” Oishi said. “We do screen everything. We do examine everything. But if there’s something suspicious after the fact, it’s a lot harder to do.”

As for having a scanner for incoming bags, “in a perfect world, if I could ask the federal government, yes I would, I would like it,” Oishi said.

“It is good to go through the bags and pick out the bags that have something of agricultural interest,” Alontaga said.

The federal scanning system intercepts thousands of things a month, while the state paper had no confessions of anything illegal in about the same amount of time. Yet, officials still say the forms are helping.

“It really is important,” Oishi said. “(Some might say) it’s a pain in the butt (or) my main problem is I like to travel light. I don’t have a pen! But that’s a good opportunity to make friends with the person next to you.”

As for those honor-box amnesty bins, Oishi said it’s a hit or miss whether it works. “(There’s usually) rubbish, but you know, there’s always some fruits or vegetables, and historically, we’ve had a snake in there before,” he said.

The state wants a biosecurity facility at the airport where they can work side by side with federal officials on closer incoming inspections, but besides money hurdles, there’s major red tape in the agriculture laws themselves.

“If a federal inspector finds something, if they could let us know right away, that would actually be the most tangible and direct form of assistance that the federal government could give us,” Oishi said. “(But) they’re not really allowed to share that information… Federal inspectors have gotten in trouble and had lawsuits filed against them.”

State officials have also gone to Hawaii’s Congressional delegation with their concerns over the years. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz told KHON2 he’s in touch with both sides on cutting the bureaucratic red tape.

Meanwhile, the state Dept.of Agriculture says it’ll focus on a streamlined pest list alongside the USDA. Electronic manifests for air cargo, like ocean shippers have, is also a strategic plan.

As for new ways to tackle that pesky form, “if everyone’s seat on an aircraft had something that could then collect the data and be transmitted to the department, that would work really well,” Oishi said. “But we’re not quite there yet.”

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