When Pete Miller arrived at the Honolulu airport on May 10, he thought he knew what to expect.
The retired Navy officer was returning home from a short trip to Salt Lake City. It was at least the fourth trip he had taken to the mainland since the pandemic started last year. Each time since the option became available, he’d pay for a COVID-19 test and make sure he had his QR code ready to prove he had a negative result so that he could skip the otherwise mandatory 10-day quarantine.
It never took very long to get through the pandemic screening process — until last week.
After exiting his Delta flight, he stood in a line for an hour and a half with an estimated 1,000 passengers slowing inching forward.
It was frustrating for the 57-year-old Aiea resident who has been vaccinated against the coronavirus since March.
Miller doesn’t understand why the state is requiring returning residents who are vaccinated to pay $130 for a COVID-19 test when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said fully vaccinated people can travel domestically without getting tested.
“Hawaii is still living in October of 2020,” he said Monday.
The state has begun allowing people who were vaccinated in Hawaii to forgo the testing and quarantine protocol when traveling between islands. However, the so-called vaccine passport system doesn’t yet apply to trans-Pacific travel, although Gov. David Ige said Monday that may soon change.
“We anticipate, within the next month, we will be able to announce this as a program,” Ige said on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” program. “We’re making progress. It is something that is complicated but we think it is very important.”
Ige has also decided to stick with the state’s mask mandate despite CDC guidance that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks, as well as data showing that it’s exceedingly rare for the virus to spread outdoors.
The decisions to maintain restrictions despite the CDC guidance has caused confusion among some arriving passengers, including those who didn’t realize the tests were still required to avoid quarantine even for those fully vaccinated. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco have quarantine exemptions for vaccinated travelers who don’t have symptoms of the virus.
Meanwhile, travel is picking up as more people get vaccinated and decide to vacation in Hawaii and as residents like Miller visit family in other states. Airport officials are already seeing some long lines and expect that to pick up in June.
Ford Fuchigami, administrative services officer for the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s airports division, said Monday that as flights increase, passengers should expect it to take a little longer to pick up their luggage and leave the airport.
On Monday, 60 flights arrived in Honolulu, he said, about on par with the average of 58 or 59 in 2019. Maui saw 43 flights arrive Monday, more than the average of 37 or 38 flights in 2019. Kona on Hawaii island saw about 30 flights, similar to a typical day in 2019.
He said at least three airlines plan to add more flights in June.
“We’re heading into 2019 all over again,” Fuchigami said.
State officials have been moving airlines around within the airport to try to make the passenger experience more seamless.
“Operationally we’re trying to optimize the efficiency of the flow. It’s a real challenge for us but we’ve been working on it since January,” he said, adding that he expects a noticeable increase in flights in June.
One challenge is that not all airlines are yet participating in the state’s program to prescreen travelers for COVID-19 and notify travelers about what to expect.
Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways are participating, but American Airlines and Delta Airlines are still in the process of joining the process. Fuchigami estimated it will take another few weeks before all the airlines are signed up.
“When you have a flight that comes in with over 200 passengers and none of them have been able to be prescreened, (the line) will be longer,” Fuchigami said.
But he said those lines aren’t constant. “It is a moment in time. It is not something that occurs throughout the day.”
Fuchigami noted that the state’s pandemic Safe Travels program has improved a lot since it began in October and passengers have become more aware of what it entails. State data from travelers this week found that the vast majority were exempt from quarantine requirements, with many fulfilling the COVID-19 testing mandate.
Fuchigami said the best way to have a seamless airport experience is to follow the guidelines and get tested by a state-approved COVID-19 laboratory. He noted that airport lines are likely to grow this summer with more arriving passengers and said the state is working on making sure they keep moving.
“We’re pretty confident that come June 1 … we’ll be able to manage the flow,” he said.
The long lines don’t anger all passengers. When Linda Adams, 70, arrived in Honolulu on holiday on an American Airlines flight from Dallas on Friday, she waited for an hour and a half to show her QR code proving she had tested negative for COVID-19.
It was nerve-racking. Her flight had been delayed, and she worried that the extra wait in line would mean that her COVID-19 test would be older than the 72-hour limit.
But once she reached the screeners, she was approved to skip quarantine. Despite being fully vaccinated, Adams said she didn’t mind the process.
“I understood why it was like that. I wasn’t happy, I was tired, but I accepted it,” she said. “I’m here to relax, have a vacation — I just went with the flow.”
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