In the post 9/11 world, airport security has focused on denying a terrorist access to an aircraft’s cockpit.
But several widely publicized incidents this year - at a Utah airport, another in Philadelphia and a third at JFK Airport - have intensified attention on the vulnerability of airport perimeters.
While federal authorities largely manage and operate the security system encountered by travelers, security at the fence is the responsibility of local authorities.
At Dayton International Airport, you’ll find eight miles or so of 10-foot-high fence topped by three strands of barbed wire. There’s a road inside the fence line and police patrols to keep watch. Outside the fence, the terrain varies from farm fields to busy roadways.
In the past four years, the airport has recorded only a handful of incidents. In one, a homeless man scaled the fence in the middle of the day and had to be dragged down by Airport Police Chief Mike Etter, who oversees 29 armed airport police officers.
The man had a simple demand, Etter said. He was hungry and wanted to be fed. In another incident, a motorcyclist trying to evade a state police vehicle in hot pursuit sped through the airport entrance, rode past the terminal, and back out the exit.
Director of Aviation Terry Slaybaugh says the airport is secure. Two-thousand employees have badged access to high-security areas and all have undergone federally required background checks and fingerprinting. All have security responsibilities and are required to enforce security zones as part of their jobs. They must report anything suspicious, Slaybaugh said.
Those with badges are also limited, and must stay within their job areas.
The perimeter security threat isn’t a large one here, in Slaybaugh’s view. “If once a week, somebody jumps over a fence, we’d deal with it. But that is not what is happening,” he said. “It’s access to the cockpit. That is where the threat is.”
Nevertheless, the airport is now evaluating more sophisticated perimeter security systems, Slaybaugh added.
In July, SkyWest pilot Brian Hedglin used a rug to cover a razor wire-topped security fence and entered the grounds of a Utah airport. Hedglin, a suspect in his girlfriend’s fatal stabbing, boarded an idle, empty 50-passenger SkyWest Airlines jet.
Ultimately, he crashed the plane in a parking lot and shot himself in the head, never getting off the ground. SkyWest said that Hedglin was a pilot for the airline since 2005 but had been on administrative leave since July 13, the day police found the body of girlfriend Christina Cornejo in Colorado Springs.
SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow said the investigation is ongoing, including how Hedglin got access to the plane even though his security badges had been deactivated.
At JFK Airport in August, a man in distress after his jet ski broke down in Jamaica Bay swam to the airport after dark and scaled a security fence, getting past an expensive and sophisticated security system.
The Transportation Security Administration doesn’t offer highly specific perimeter airport security requirements, but does approve all commercial airport security plans, a spokeswoman said.
“With more than 450 commercial airports nationwide, each with its own unique footprint, location and landscape, each individual airport is required to have its own airport security program approved by TSA,” spokeswoman Ann Davis said.
The TSA regularly challenges security at Dayton International, Slaybaugh said, by making covert attempts to enter security zones and other tests that aren’t publicly disclosed.
Scott Broyles, president of the federally-funded National Safe Skies Alliance, a membership nonprofit that runs confidential field tests of airport security technology, said the gaps show a need for more comprehensive evaluations of security. No single solution will work for all airports because needs vary with locations and surroundings, he said.
“We need to do more, faster, to help airports learn what works best,” he said.
In Congress, Rep. William R. Keating, D-Quincy, Mass., wants the TSA to do more. After a March incident at Philadelphia International Airport where an intoxicated driver drove through an unmanned gate and onto airport property as a plane was departing, Keating called it “just one in a series of breaches that take place within the security perimeters of our nation’s airports.”
A member of the House Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, Keating said he’s been calling for “a more comprehensive approach to airport perimeter security because there remains uneven enforcement from locality to locality.”
Keating said in the past decade there have been over 1,300 known breaches of airport perimeter security in the U.S. He’s proposed legislation requiring TSA to more thoroughly conduct vulnerability assessments at all U.S. airports.
Last year, the General Accounting Office said its analysis of TSA data showed that from 2004 through July 2011, TSA conducted evaluations with the FBI at 17 percent of the airports it regulated, leaving about 83 percent not reviewed for vulnerabilities.
Those FBI studies supplement annual security assessments TSA conducts at all commercial airports.
“With few exceptions, our perimeters are not secured,” Keating said. “It’s something that has not been addressed at all. We go through this inconvenience as a public, and just look outside the window and it’s open. It’s like locking up the windows and leaving the doors open.”
In November 2010, then District Attorney Keating investigated the death of Delvonte Tisdale, 16, who breached security at Charlotte-Douglas airport in North Carolina and slipped undetected into the wheel well of a Boeing 737. He fell to his death as the plane approached Boston’s Logan International Airport. Keating said he became alarmed about his findings on perimeter security.
Perimeter security is worth an investigation by the General Accounting Office, said airport security expert Jeff Price, textbook author and aviation management professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “We are not ready to push the panic button,” he said. “It’s not real popular, but it’s time to take a look at the issue, if not just for a safety perspective, but to see if we should do different things.”
Newly-developed automated thermal imaging cameras, which news reports say have been installed at Logan, Buffalo-Niagara and at Healthrow in London, are making hardened perimeters more common in some places. Logan International gained unwanted fame as the departure point for 10 of the 911 hijackers who crashed planes into the Twin Towers. The ‘smart’ technology is advanced enough that it works in all weather and light conditions, distinguishes approaching humans and vehicles from animals, and alerts watchers to approaches while tracking the target, said SightLogix of Princeton, New Jersey, which designs the systems.
The company says they’ve been deployed at hundreds of locations worldwide to guard “transportation, energy, utility, chemical, information technology, public safety and defense industries.”
Most are secret, but publicly disclosed systems also protect the Bear Mountain Bridge, Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, Mid-Hudson Bridge, Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge which in all handle 1 million Hudson River crossings each week. Others have been deployed by Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Jacksonville, Florida’s Port Authority.
John Romanowich, president and CEO of SightLogix, said he expects tougher federal mandates on airport perimeter security. The best argument for installing them, he said, is that they can provide enough advance warning - maybe minutes, maybe seconds - for security personnel to respond. “You have a shot at making sure nothing bad happens,” Romanowich said.