We’ve all been through the routine. You remove your shoes and place them in a bin along with your jacket and toiletries so that they can be x-rayed by TSA personnel.
We all endure this inconvenience under the auspices of ensuring our personal security while traveling through our nation’s vast and interconnected collection of airports.
But while a tremendous amount of energy is placed on preventing contraband from passing into secure areas inside airport terminals, among passengers ticketed to fly, a much more vulnerable area remains dangerously susceptible to security breaches.
This reality was put on vivid display in the Bay Area this past week as a young stowaway managed to infiltrate the outer perimeter of San Jose International Airport and secret himself inside the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767.
A 16-year-old boy, seen sitting on a stretcher center, who stowed away in the wheel well of a flight from San Jose, Calif., to Maui is loaded into an ambulance at Kahului Airport in Kahului, Maui, Hawaii Sunday afternoon, April 20, 2014. The boy survived the trip halfway across the Pacific Ocean unharmed despite frigid temperatures at 38,000 feet and a lack of oxygen, FBI and airline officials said. (AP/The Maui News, Chris Sugidono))
Most of the media focus has been on the stowaway’s miraculous ability to survive the five and a half hour flight from San Jose to Maui, a marvel in and of itself given that temperatures at 38,000 feet can drop to 80 degrees below zero and oxygen levels become dangerously low.
Although his story of survival is undoubtedly impressive the larger issue at hand is what his ability to circumvent the perimeter security of a major international airport portends for the security of all of America’s commercial airport facilities.
At the very least this event should force aviation security experts to reassess where major vulnerabilities exist and how best to allocate resources toward preventing future security breaches of the kind that occurred in San Jose.
While the San Jose boy’s story seems incredible it is not an isolated incident. According to FAA records, over the past 67 years there have been 105 documented cases of stowaways attempting to fly within the wheel well of an airplane. Of those only 25 have survived.
But a stowaway attempting to hitch a ride is of far less security consequence than an individual attempting to access an airplane with more nefarious intent. Just as easy as hiding himself inside the wheel well of a plane could an individual instead hide an explosive device. And now, given the glaring security deficiencies highlighted by the San Jose stowaway, security personnel should be on high alert.
Multiple attempts to detonate explosives aboard airlines have been undertaken since the advent of commercial flight. In fact, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, bombs were the preferred device of groups attempting to perpetrate acts of terror against airliners throughout the world. In the those two decades there were an estimated 66 airline bombings resulting in nearly 2,000 deaths.
In 1983, Gulf Air Flight 771, traveling from Karachi, Pakistan to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates exploded on its descent into the Abu Dhabi International Airport, killing everyone on board. An investigation determined that a bomb had been placed in the forward cargo hold of the plane by an unidentified male who, incidentally, failed to board the plane himself. Responsibility for the attack was attributed to Abu Nidal, a radical Palestinian terrorist.
Al Qaeda and those sympathetic to its ideological extremism are undoubtedly watching America’s reaction to this latest security breach. Absent a comprehensive reassessment of the security features designed to inhibit perimeter infiltration at commercial airports it would not be surprising to see terrorist organizations focus their attention on this weakness.
Questions remain as to how the young San Jose stowaway managed to avoid detection. It is believed that he scaled a 6-foot tall outer perimeter fence, topped with barbed wire, and ran to the first accessible plane he found. While he did this under the cover of early morning darkness it should be noted that subsequent viewing of video surveillance footage appears to show an “unidentified person” in the vicinity of the airliner.
How much scrutiny is being placed on the viewing of live security footage covering both the outer perimeter and the active runway areas of our nation’s airports?
Given the logistical difficulties in placing human resources along the entirety of an airport perimeter - San Jose has some six miles of outer perimeter fencing - a passive approach toward viewing security footage must be replaced by a more active one.
While airport personnel granted access to secure areas within the airport are trained to challenge those found on the premises to be without such credentials, more frequent, random checks of individuals located within the secure areas of an airport should be instituted.
Finally, it goes without saying that a plane’s final inspection prior to being pushed back from the gate should include more than a mere perfunctory glance into the plane’s wheel wells. It requires relatively little effort to ensure that no individuals, or contraband, are located within a plane’s outwardly accessible areas prior to takeoff.
Glaring security failures allowed a young man to make a harrowing journey across the Pacific Ocean this past week but future security failures of the same kind could allow for a much greater tragedy to occur. This should not only concern the traveling public but also inspire heightened vigilance among those tasked with securing our nation’s airports.
Scott G. Erickson is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati and is a writer and law enforcement professional from California. He can be found at www.scottgerickson.com or @SGErickson
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