Expert: Ticketless passenger incident at San Jose airport a 'minor breach' of security

Last week, a woman described in media reports as a “serial stowaway,” was able to slip past a ticket checkpoint and a gate agent before making her way onto a Los Angeles-bound flight at Mineta San Jose International Airport. The incident follows a well-publicized security breach at the same airport earlier this spring when a teenage boy scaled a perimeter fence and climbed into the wheel well of a Hawaii-bound jetliner. Although the woman, later identified as 62-year-old Marilyn Hartman, did go through the screening process, critics say the incident demonstrates a breakdown in airport security that needs to be addressed.      

“Passenger safety in the sky relies upon effective security on the ground. That means only a screened and ticketed passenger should ever be able to board an airplane,” House Homeland Security Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said in statement immediately after the incident. “Yesterday’s incident, of an unticketed passenger successfully taking a flight from San Jose to Los Angeles, was an apparent failure by both airport security and the airline of protecting passengers from a potential threat to their safety.  Fortunately, this ticketless passenger was harmless.  However, we may not be as lucky next time and must do everything possible to protect the traveling public.”

Others maintain, however, that this was only a minor breach of security. According to Jeff Price, owner of aviation management training and consulting firm Leading Edge Strategies and author of the text book, “Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats,” the fact that she still went through the screening checkpoint is paramount.

“That would be a major breach if she had somehow bypassed that,” said Price, the lead airport security coordinator trainer for the American Association of Airport Executives who has trained over 1,000 airport security coordinators and over 800 TSA transportation security inspectors. “The fact that she bypassed two other layers - the document checkpoint ahead of the (screening) checkpoint and the verification when she boarded the flight - those are lesser layers of security so I would classify this as a minor breach, but not a major breach.”

When it comes to who bears the brunt of the blame for this breach – the TSA or airport security – Price said that this mainly falls on the shoulders of TSA.

“The fact that it was just a document check that was breached doesn’t mean it is insignificant,” added Price. “TSA is responsible for doing those checks and, in fact, several years ago they took that over from private contractors thinking they could do a more effective job. If they think it is important, then I think they have to step up and take a little responsibility on this one. On the airlines side, they’re not checking IDs there, all their doing is checking if you have a ticket in your hand and then they’re doing a count to make sure the tickets that were scanned or got through the gate area (match) the number of people on the plane. I think the real breach took place at that document checkpoint and that’s the TSA’s responsibility.”

 According to a story published by the San Jose Mercury News, Hartman allegedly tried to sneak past the TSA ticket checkpoint three different times before she was eventually able to blend in with a family to get past the guards. While it would seem like this type of behavior would be something that would be called to the attention of airport security, Price said that she would have had to come in contact with some “touch point” of security on some level before they would have been made aware of her presence.

“You can ban somebody from an airport, but that’s like a restraining order and it doesn’t mean they’re still not going to try,” said Price. “For the folks at the airport, it typically takes somebody like a criminal or a terrorist before you send out a ‘be on the lookout.’ For something like this, she is fairly harmless, so to try and be on the lookout for a lady you might find wandering around the checkpoint; I think that was worth a mention to TSA personnel, but it really doesn’t reach a level where everyone is going to walk around with a picture in their pocket looking for her.”

Despite the fact that Mineta San Jose has suffered two security breaches in the span of four months, Price said that the incidents are completely different from one another and that TSA will have to take a look at the airport to see if there may be something in its security culture that is making it prone to these types of vulnerabilities.

“What TSA needs to do, at this point, is take a look at San Jose and say, ‘is there a cultural problem with security? Is this a security culture that is not strong enough and that’s why we’ve had two incidents recently?’” said Price. “And if they say, ‘no there is a strong security culture here, it’s just a bad day or a bad year,’ that’s ok. But then they could say, ‘well, wait a minute, maybe there is a way we can take awareness at this airport up a notch,’ then that’s something that TSA and the airport security manager have to take a look at. Were these anomalies and they just happened to take place at our airport or is there a security culture here that needs strengthening?”

On a positive note, these stowaway events at San Jose combined with a string of other security incidents at airports across the nation in recent years – be it the terminal shooting at LAX or the stranded jet skier who walked across the runway at JFK – have kept airport security at the forefront of public conversation, according to Price.

“One of the problems, historically, in aviation security is we would just leap from one tragedy to the next. There would be a tragedy, we would pass some law, everybody would look around and say, ‘alright, we’re doing something, looks good’ and then we go back to sleep until the next tragedy,” concluded Price. “Since 9/11, I’ve started to see (that pattern) come back a couple of times, but then there is another incident and then in my mind I’m going, ‘ok, nobody died – good, let’s make sure people are still paying attention.’ This is not a war that at the end of it you declare victory. It’s an ongoing process and people need to constantly be aware, at some level, that this doesn’t ever go away. There is never a time you can plant your flag and say, ‘we won this’ and go off to do other things.”

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