Expert: Airports shouldn't overreact to stowaway incident

Overhauling perimeter security measures at airports can be cost-prohibitive and not address real risks


Last week, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) called for tougher security standards at airports across the county in wake of the recent stowaway incident at Mineta San Jose International Airport in which a 15-year-old boy hopped a fence and was able to hide in the wheel well of Hawaii-bound jetliner. Although the teen was caught on surveillance video near the aircraft, no one at the airport saw the footage until after the boy was caught wandering the tarmac in Maui. Swalwell is also pushing for a pilot program that would test technology designed to detect perimeter intrusions and alert airport security personnel automatically.

However, Billie Vincent, a former director of civil aviation security for the Federal Aviation Administration, said there are very few airports in the world that have a true perimeter barrier system in place. One of the few Vincent said he’s seen can be found at Japan’s Narita International Airport, which he was able to tour when he was still in charge of security for the FAA. Designed on a slant, Vincent said that at that time, the barrier system in place at Narita cost $3,000 a running meter and included double fences that were 20-feet tall, as well as guard towers. There were also 1,100 police officers assigned to the airport.

“Very, very few airports in the world are perimeter barrier systems because they don’t have the threat that justifies doing that. The Israelis at Ben Gurion (airport)… indeed had a perimeter security system, but again not a barrier system, but they had the response capability for responding to penetrations,” said Vincent, who now serves as president and CEO of consulting firm Aerospace Services International (ASI). “Most airport perimeters in the world have property fences. They don’t have real barriers. In some cases, they have some considerable perimeter fence that it would take a burn barrier or something else to get through it real quick. It is somewhere between what I saw at Narita and a property fence.”

Vincent said that airports should avoid overreacting and making decisions about the security systems and measures they have in place based on what media pundits, who are oftentimes uniformed about the threat conditions of an airport, have to say about the perceived vulnerabilities exposed by this incident. Building a more robust perimeter security system is simply not feasible for many airports given the costs involved, according to Vincent, nor will it necessarily address the real risks that they face.   

“If you’re going to protect a perimeter at an airport - which sometimes can be 15, 20 or 30 miles around in extreme cases, but certainly six to 12 miles easily around the perimeter of a large airport in the U.S. – you need to have a system that is going to detect movement across that perimeter and you’re going to have to have three technologies: Probably one buried, one on the fence and maybe one that is microwave, infrared or something on that order,” explained Vincent. “You’re also going to have use software in conjunction with those so that you do not respond or your system doesn’t respond to a so-called penetration unless you get two of those three systems tripped at one time. You also have to have a visual capability of looking at what penetrated your perimeter, which means that you’re also going to be collecting frames (of video) on whatever you’re looking at and that has to be able to handle all environmental conditions. Your response force will also have to be dispersed in such a manner as to be able to respond to deter and neutralize whatever the penetration is.

Vincent believes the real breakdown at the San Jose airport occurred in the security layers that are supposed exist between the perimeter and the tarmac.

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