Teen stowaway exposes lack of perimeter security at San Jose airport

May 9, 2014
Event should serve as a wake-up call for all airports to review their security measures

Last week, Bay Area Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Hayward) called for tougher security standards and a study of technology that could have spotted a teenager climbing a fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport  (SJA) and stowing away in the wheel well of a Hawaii-bound airliner.

"The problem is not the barrier," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Hayward, after a briefing on San Jose International Airport's security system. Swalwell said, correctly, that the problem is that someone can get across the fence unobserved. Swalwell said he's pushing for a pilot program to test radar and motion-detecting cameras and other technology that could detect intrusions and alert personnel automatically. The study could include San Jose, he said.

We all know the details, on April 19 a young Somali jumped a fence at SJA, strolled over to a Hawaiian Airlines plane and snuggled into the aircraft’s landing gear wheel well; and remained there during a flight across the Pacific Ocean to Maui’s Kahului Airport, where he was photographed emerging from the plane, and taken into custody.

In these post-9/11 days, how could anyone get into the underside of a plane undetected and stay there for the duration of the flight? Because if it was that easy, it means that a terrorist could stick a bomb right in the landing gear, and blow up the plane mid-flight.  Or a drug smuggler could bring a stash of heroin to sell in another city or another country, or smuggle in almost anything.

Another question might be why we all have to get to the airport early, wait in a long line, take off our shoes, empty our pockets, etc., to get on a the plane from the gate?

Even more upsetting, and why they immediately had a Senate hearing on this issue was that from Jan. 2 to March 28, inspectors completed a comprehensive inspection of SJC airport: a total of 82.5 hours. The inspectors found that SJC was in compliance with its security requirements for perimeter systems and measures; including the fence line.  A comprehensive inspection includes areas such as:

  • An overall review of a regulated entity’s airside and landside operations, as defined in its TSA-approved Airport Security Program,
  • A review of the perimeter security through physical barriers and electronic access control systems,
  • A review of the airport’s complete badging systems, controls, and specifications for use,
  • A review of all training requirements associated with the airport’s operation,
  • A review of applicable law enforcement support; which includes standards and availability,
  • A review of the contingency plans (example: incidents and threats),
  • The airport’s adherence to TSA issued specific security directives.

There is a simple conclusion that can be drawn from this, and that is the inspectors probably used a static checklist to do their inspections, which probably occurred between 8:00 a.m., and 5:00 p.m., during regular business hours.If the compliance checklist is inadequate, then the inspection will NOT ensure that the flights flying from SJA are safe and secure. 

It also came out in the Senate hearing that there were no cameras around the perimeter of the airport.  That was a surprise to me, because so many situations occur within the airport perimeter.

In my world, “A” is for access control, because if you can keep ‘them’ out, then you have a better chance of a secure facility. Rep. Swalwell said that SJA is now going to install cameras around the perimeter, and I hope he encourages them to have those cameras monitored around the clock.

Another security issue that the incident brought up was why the airport personnel, who were busy on the tarmac moving baggage, refueling and restocking planes, didn’t notice a way too young, unidentified person to walk around the planes.  Again, so many people just “do their job” and don’t think it’s their job to look for badges on others, or to report unusual behavior or unfamiliar activities.  

This event should be a wake-up for all airports to review their perimeter security, (and the rest of their security too), and perhaps its time to review TSA’s minimum security standards. Because this time, they didn’t!






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