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Airport perimeter securityAirports resist bolstering perimeter security because of cost

Published 28 May 2014

Last month’s security breach at Mineta San Jose Airport, in which a teenager entered the airfield and hid in the wheel well of a Maui-bound flight, has highlighted concerns about the security of airport perimeters. Perimeter intrusions are common at airports, but airports resist pressures to improve perimeter protection because of the costs involved. Experts note that if we were to string all of the U.S. airport perimeters together, we would approach the length of the U.S. border with Mexico and security expenditures approaching a billion dollars. These experts say that airports are not likely to invest heavily in perimeter security until a serious disaster due to lax perimeter security occurs. “Show me a body count, and we’ll build a fence,” said one airport administrator.

Last month’s security breach at Mineta San Joses Airport, in which a teenager entered the airfield and hid in the wheel well of a Maui-bound flight, has highlighted concerns about the security of airport perimeters. Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Safety and Security Center said that “security clearly failed,” but he asks, “so was this a failure of performance by the airport? Or are the existing standards inadequate, requiring stronger security?”

Authorities have been investigating how the teenager was able to climb the airport’s perimeter fence, cross the passenger terminal, hide for more than six hours, then gain access to an airplane. An airport surveillance camera reportedly noticed an unidentified intruder on the tarmac, but security personnel were unaware of the breach before the plane landed in Hawaii.

A Congressional hearing was told  that just weeks before the incident, the TSA had reviewed and approved the airport’s perimeter security measures. Jenkins said, “most people think of airport security only as it applies to passengers boarding aircraft. However, those charged with security must think in terms of 360-degree security — not only screening passengers coming through the terminal, but also preventing unauthorized access to the aircraft from the air operations side of airport. That requires preventing outsiders from breaching the airport perimeter while ensuring the reliability of insiders who have legitimate access to the airplanes and airside facilities.”

Perimeter intrusions are common at airports. Global Travel Industry News reports that in January 2010, authorities arrested an intoxicated man with a knife, who had climbed over the security fence at Los Angeles International Airport. A month later, police arrested two more airport fence climbers. Another disturbed individual repeatedly climbed the fence at the same airport and was taken into custody several times.

The violators in these recent incidents could be described as desperate, drunk, or disturbed,” said Jenkins. “None were terrorists. Their actions were unplanned or improvised, which seems to give the disorganized adventurer an advantage over more calculating adversaries. Deterrence — the prospect of failure or arrest — has no effect on them. Oblivious to security, they do unexpectedly stupid things. In most cases, courts treated their crimes as misdemeanors.”

The federal government could require airports to increase security around perimeters, but considering costs versus risks, most airports are not likely to support such a mandate. San Jose’s airport covers a perimeter of roughly 5-mile long, while Denver International airport has  a perimeter  roughly 29-nine-mile long. “String all of the U.S. airport perimeters together,” said Jenkins, “and we are approaching the length of the U.S. border with Mexico and security expenditures approaching a billion dollars.”

While the TSA is responsible for screening passengers, airports are responsible for perimeter security, with the TSA ensuring that airports meet appropriate security levels. A 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report notes that the TSA failed to conduct vulnerability assessments for 87 percent of the nation’s 450 commercial airports.

Airports resist vulnerability assessments because if they catalogue vulnerabilities, they must be remedied even if they are theoretical. If remedies are not implemented, the airport assumes a legal liability that trial lawyers could exploit if anything should happen,” Jenkins said.

Additionally, airports are not likely to invest heavily in perimeter security until a serious disaster due to lax perimeter security occurs. “Show me a body count, and we’ll build a fence,” said one airport administrator.

Airports currently allocate 25 percent of operating costs to security, and few airports have the funds to spend more. Even with more funding, increasing perimeter security funding does not guarantee a secured perimeter. New York and New Jersey Port Authority spent $100 million on a new perimeter security system at the John F. Kennedy and Newark airports, but both locations still dealt with perimeter breaches.

Some security officials are urging Congress to give the TSA authority, along with the resources, needed to improve airport perimeter security because with the current approach, the TSA retains oversight but lacks any practical enforcement power.