EXCLUSIVE: State to replace TSA officers to guard airport checkpoint exit lanes

EXCLUSIVE: State to replace TSA officers to guard airport checkpoint exit lanes

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Transportation Security Administration has notified state airport officials that it no longer plans to use TSA officers to guard the exit lanes outside of airport checkpoints because of federal budget cuts.

A dramatic security video released earlier this month showed a TSA officer guarding an exit lane at a Honolulu International Airport checkpoint getting assaulted the day before Easter.

Hawaii News Now has learned the TSA notified the state and other airport operators across the country it will no longer provide TSA officers to guard exit lanes like those, not because of the Honolulu assault, but because of federal budget cuts.

State airport officials confirmed they will start guarding the exit lanes with private security guards from contractor Securitas within the next several weeks.

"We need more law enforcement in our checkpoints, in our work areas to keep us safe because we can't do it ourself," said Al Baang, vice president of the TSA officers' local union. The American Federation of Government Employees Local 1234 represents about 1,000 TSA workers in Hawaii.

Baang is happy there will be a second security guard in addition to the one armed officer who's already located at each checkpoint.

"They should be there, close enough where you call them and they're right there with you. And they come, but they got to be called," Baang said.

The extra private security guards at exit lanes at Hawaii airports will cost about $77,000 a month, money that won't come from taxpayers but from airport landing and user fees, according to Caroline Sluyter, a spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department.

"It's important to us to take care of the traveling public," Sluyter said.

She said the additional expenses are not a surprise, because the state prepared for them as part of its sequestration planning.

It's important to guard exit lanes since if someone is able to sneak through the lane into a "sterile" or secured area of the airport, a security breach could occur, requiring a portion or all of an airport to be closed while the person is located and searched.

In the meantime, TSA union leaders complain the assault caught on video last month in an exit lane illustrates their unarmed officers' vulnerability to attack, since they have no self defense training and no gear like pepper spray to protect themselves.

"There has to be some kind of changes made to protect the officer.  They are federal employees and they should be protected," said Lisa Marie Akau, a national organizer for the AFGE union in Hawaii who was a TSA screener in Honolulu for six years.

Baang worked for ten years for the TSA as a screener and supervisor in Honolulu.

"We are open to abuse, we are open to assault, and so what do they do for us?" Baang asked. "If they come for me, I'm not even supposed to protect myself, you know.  They tell us, 'You can't touch them. Back off.'"

Baang said the TSA spends about $40,000 training and certifying TSA officers how to detect explosives and protect the flying public, but no money or effort training the officers how to protect themselves.

"We're doing our job," Baang said. "But what's the government doing for their officers?  Their TSOs (transportation security officers)? I don't see anything."

TSA officials have said the officers are not law enforcement, which is why the do not carry any weapons or have the power of arrest.

TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said he did not have any information on the exit lane change and had no response to the union members' complaints.

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