San Jose airport security fixes won't come cheap

Nonprofit safety group recruited to examine flaws exposed in stowaway incident


June 26--SAN JOSE -- Airport officials have recruited a national nonprofit safety group to examine security flaws exposed after a teenage boy's famous stowaway flight in April but acknowledged that whatever fix is out there won't be simple or cheap.

Since an international spotlight focused on San Jose Mineta International Airport when Yahya Abdi scaled a 6-foot fence and crept undetected across the runway to board a Boeing 767 bound for Hawaii, the facility has scrutinized its operations and perimeter fence, working closely with federal and local agencies to improve security.

They've also been approached by a host of vendors pitching their own solutions, said airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes, with ideas ranging from the simple -- topping fences with rolls of concertina razor instead of traditional barbed wire -- to more complex and costly methods involving infrared sensors and alarms.

To help vet what would ultimately work best for the facility, the airport brought in the National Safe Skies Alliance -- a nonprofit consortium that develops security solutions for airports.

"We had a number of reps come out and spend quite a bit of time with staff here," Barnes said. "We did perimeter walks, they looked at potential vulnerabilities and they are in the process of vetting technology to see what will work in concert with our current security program."

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, praised the airport's efforts in a statement Thursday.

"I applaud SJC's initial plans to review security procedures and opportunities for improvement, in particular its decision to work with the nonprofit and federally-funded Safe Skies Alliance to assess technology solutions to the challenge of perimeter security," said Swalwell, the only Northern California member of the Homeland Security Committee.

San Jose Councilman Sam Liccardo called it a "straightforward challenge" akin to building a better mousetrap that should be no problem given the airport's location in the heart of Silicon Valley.

"You can throw a rock in any direction from the airport and hit a company with its own high-tech security system," he said. "Let's innovate and create a perimeter safety system that will be the envy of every other airport in the nation."

Liccardo did not know whether Safe Skies was utilizing local talent in its research but said it was a no-brainer to look into area vendors.

Barnes said Safe Skies' work is funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration, and independent of private companies, reminiscent of Consumer Reports, with their own technology testing lab in Tennessee.

Barnes did not have a timeline for when Safe Skies would return with results -- or an estimated price for the upgrades.

But according to a memo from Director of Aviation Kim Aguirre, the airport "does not have the financial resources to further strengthen the entire 6+ miles of the perimeter."

She states that a key source of funding would be from Passenger Facility Charges, a $4.50 fee tacked onto tickets of departing passengers to be used for infrastructure improvements, such as perimeter security.

Currently, Mineta's PFC funds are tied up in the $1.3 billion airport modernization -- and debt service -- from recent years, Barnes said. But there's an industrywide push to add $4 to the fee, which has remained the same since 2000. Raising the fee has been the airport's main legislative goal for the past seven years, according to Aguirre.

Barnes said that's done by congress, which will take up the airport funding matter in the fall.

Liccardo called utilizing PFCs a reasonable approach to a problem that must be addressed.

"It seems to me that -- God forbid -- should we encounter a more malevolent intruder next time; whatever the cost will be a bargain compared to doing nothing," he said.

Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.

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