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Stowaway incident raises alarm over airport security

A teenager’s weekend scramble over a fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport and into the wheel well of a Maui-bound airliner is raising concerns about airport security nationwide.

There have been several breaches of airport perimeter fences across the country in recent years, but perhaps none more dramatic as the incident Sunday in which the Santa Clara, Calif., teenager survived a five-hour, nonstop flight to Maui.

“If somebody can come onto an airport and get to the wheel well of an airplane, then someone else can plant a bomb or do something else to sabotage an aircraft,” Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp., said Monday.

San Jose’s airport is surrounded by 6-foot fences, some sections with barbed wire on top, according to airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes. At least some of the tarmac area is monitored by cameras, but airport officials were unaware of the perimeter breach.

“We have 1,050 acres,” Barnes said. “That’s a lot of fence line. He could have scaled the fence line really through any area here at the airport. It’s very easy to do so under the cover of darkness, and it appears that’s what he did.”

Barnes said there is surveillance footage of “an unidentified person walking on the airport ramp and approaching” the plane. That footage, however, was not discovered until after the Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 landed at Maui.

“If there is video of him going over the fence, why was there no response?” asked Jenkins, who also directs the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration sets the standards for airport perimeter security, but airports are responsible for implementing them, which can vary from airport to airport, with their different geographies and proximity to urban areas. But the breach has raised questions about the procedures in place at San Jose.

The embarrassing incident adds to a string of airport perimeter intrusions over the past few years that has stirred concern in Congress.

“People shouldn’t be able to just access a runway or airliner without getting through pretty tight security,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who sits on the transportation subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The subcommittee is drafting a request that the Government Accountability Office update its 2009 report on airport perimeter security needs.

Since that report:

• A driver crashed through a gate onto the runway at Philadelphia airport.

• A jet skier emerged from the water and walked across two runways past security cameras and motion detectors at JFK International Airport in New York.

• A 16-year-old stowaway got into a Boston-bound airplane’s wheel well in Charlotte, N.C., and fell to his death as it approached Boston Logan Airport.

• A man dressed as a woman jumped a security fence at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., and the intrusion, although captured on video, went undetected for a day, according to reports.

• An inebriated 49-year-old man climbed a fence at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix and ran across the tarmac.

Some airports use infrared or radar perimeter sensing systems, while others rely on video cameras or even guard dogs and police patrols. No matter how sophisticated the security systems, they ultimately depend on individuals watching monitors, experts said, citing studies that found the attention span of someone watching a bank of 30 monitors is half an hour at best.

Airport spokeswoman Barnes said Mineta’s security program “involves many components, including outer perimeter fencing, surveillance video equipment and more than 2,800 badge employees” trained to report security concerns to law enforcement and airport operations.

But those measures weren’t enough to deter a teenager.


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