Expert: Airports shouldn't overreact to stowaway incident

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.

“You have layered systems where employees on that ramp – if they see someone that is not badged, that they don’t know they have to challenge them. Somewhere in this incident, the person that was supposed to be looking at the CCTV (missed spotting the teen), which it is not surprising that they missed it… but it happens all the time. You’re sitting there forever looking at something that is not supposed to happen, but something then didn’t work between that fence and the airplane because in some systems we do, you have security people around the airplane and even the cleaners are checked before they go on the airplane,” Vincent said. “Unless you have a bonafide threat like Narita – the local farmers didn’t appreciate the government taking their land and they destroyed a part of that airport twice – but here in the U.S., what are you protecting? All you’re doing is keeping away pink elephants because you cannot articulate a threat that justifies a multi-billion dollar perimeter system when there are systems that are supposed to work closer to those airplanes.”

Lauren Stover, assistant aviation director for public safety and security at Miami International Airport (MIA), which has nearly 13 miles of fence line, admitted that airport perimeters can be a challenge to secure; however, she added that it is critical that they be hardened against intrusion. In fact, Stover said that MIA is currently in the process of installing a system that will enable them to detect intrusions into taxiways and runways.

“The sensitivity about the airfield is obviously protecting people, goods and the movement of aircraft, therefore with Miami we have multiple layers of security in place to address our perimeter and, more importantly, incursions on our taxiways and runways,” said Stover.

Additionally, Stover said that MIA recently inaugurated its very first Miami Airport Watch group which consists of photographers that like to take pictures of aircraft from the airport’s perimeter and in the public roadways. Stover said they recruited these photographers into their airport security program and gave them a behavior detection training class to help them better recognize suspicious activity. “It’s another layer of security in our tool box,” she said. “Not that it’s the silver bullet that’s going to protect our airport, but it is an added layer of security at no cost to the airport.”

Stover agreed that biggest security failure in San Jose was not just the breach of the fence, but the fact that the teen was able to gain access to the aircraft.

“Hopping the fence is one thing, but what you do once you’re on the inside is what will determine the threat and in this case the outcome was an individual gaining access to the wheel well of an aircraft. And whatever those intentions could have been, it could have been catastrophic. In this case, it wasn’t, but a runway/taxiway detection system would prevent that type of a breach,” explained Stover. “There are layers of security at an airport. The aircraft, first of all, is in a secured area, so by nature of the airport security program, airports operate with aircraft in a secured environment. On the inside of that fence line, everything is supposed to be screened, vetted and checked before anyone can get near an aircraft.”

Stover advises that airports evaluate what their threats are and whether or not the security measures they currently have in place adequately address those risks. “Airports need to know what their threats are, what their vulnerabilities are and what their capabilities are to mitigate those threats and then evaluate those in terms of high-risk to low-risk in order to actualize a plan of action,” she concluded.

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