Sunday, December 17, 2006
Airport security probe reveals gaps
Only Miami asks journalists to leave areas near planes
The Fort Myers (FL) News Press
A look at The News-Press investigation of perimeter security at the state’s three busiest airports along with Southwest Florida International:
WHAT WE DID
A reporter walked along the perimeter, observing the condition of the fence and gates, police presence, ease of access and police response time. The time spent in the perimeter area was recorded. Unless interrupted by police, the investigation was concluded after one hour.
SW FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Test date: Nov. 29
Started: 9 a.m.
Finished: 10:12 a.m.
Elapsed time*: 1 hour, 12 minutes
Result: Never confronted by authorities
Observations: Never saw police in the area. Fence 6 feet high topped by three strands of barbed wire. Some small holes along fence in densely wooded area; new fence along tarmac on old terminal site. Vehicle access blocked to air fire and rescue and control tower area, but foot access unrestricted, allowing intruder to get within roughly 20 feet of the tower.
MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT:
Test date: Nov. 30
Started: 11:44 a.m.
Finished: 11:55 a.m.
Elapsed time*: 11 minutes
Result: Miami-Dade police questioned reporter and photographer, conducted criminal background checks and ordered reporter and photographer off property.
Observations: 8-foot fence backed in most areas by guardrails and
concrete barriers preventing intruders from gaining access by smashing vehicles through fence. Saw four U.S. Customs and Border Protection patrol cars along with a Miami-Dade utility vehicle along perimeter road before being confronted by police.
NAPLES MUNICIPLE AIRPORT
Test date: Tuesday
Started: 10:05 a.m.
Finished: 11:34 a.m.
Elapsed time*: 1 hour
Result: Never confronted
Observations: Mostly new fence with 20-foot section badly bowed and pulled from post in south-central area of perimeter along work site and near terminal. Observed by man in control tower. Saw three airport operations vehicles on perimeter road. Several gates held closed by chain and padlock.
Test date: Dec. 5
Started: 2:52 p.m.
Finished: 4:36 p.m.
Elapsed time*: 1 hour, 8 minutes Result: Never confronted by
Observations: Saw one police cruiser, none along perimeter roads. Fence 6 feet high topped by three strands of barbed wire in most sections. Large hole in fence near heavily used taxiway, offering quick access to aircraft. Many gates locked with chains. Loose barbed wire and crumpled fence in some sections. Large holes apparently dug by animals at bottom of some sections.
TAMPA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Test date: Dec. 1
Started: 12:45 p.m.
Finished: 1:45 p.m.
Elapsed time*: 1 hour
Result: Never confronted
Observations: Saw one police cruiser along inside of perimeter. Fence 6 feet high, rusty and crumpled, topped by loose strands of barbed wire in some sections. Some access gates held closed only with rusty chain and padlock. Saw large hole at bottom of fence in one area; bottom of fence easily pulled up so that an intruder could squeeze through in other areas.
A sampling of perimeter security breaches this year at U.S. airports:
Oct. 31: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. A vehicle carrying three men fleeing from police smashes through a perimeter fence on the northeast side of the air operations area. The men abandon the vehicle and run across the airfield before being arrested near a terminal.
Sept. 11: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Atlanta. A 53-year-old homeless man walks along the perimeter of the airport and through an open gate into an area offering access to airplanes and fuel tanks. He is apprehended without incident.
Aug. 8: Southwest Florida International Airport, Fort Myers. Jack Brems, 34, of San Carlos Park, smashes his car through a steel security gate, racing onto a runway as one jetliner takes off and beneath the wing of another readying for takeoff. The high-speed chase lasts seven minutes before authorities arrest Brems.
June 14: Dulles International Airport, Dulles, Va. Federal agents arrest 55 illegal immigrants working in a secure construction area.
May 31: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Local TV crew reports that construction vehicles speed through an open gate without being stopped by lone company employee at the gate.
May: Indianapolis International Airport. An airline ground crewman tells a local TV station that his co-workers breach security every day. His claims are backed by a videotape showing him boarding two empty planes without being questioned.
March 18: Tulsa International Airport, Oklahoma. A man is arrested after driving into an airport concourse without being screened, apparently by driving down an exit lane.
March 6: Midway International Airport, Chicago. An inebriated 22-year-old man slips though an open gate into a secure area. A Southwest Airlines pilot calls the control tower after seeing the man standing between two runways. Six minutes later, police arrest the man.
Jan. 10: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. A local TV station discovers that security gates around the air traffic control transmitter have been left open and unguarded for weeks.
source: the news-press research
Miami International Airport
Operator: Miami-Dade County Aviation Department
Passengers: 31 million
Naples Municipal Airport
Operator: Naples Airport Authority
Orlando International Airport
Operator: Greater Orlando Aviation Authority
Passengers: 34.7 million
Southwest Florida International Airport
Operator: Lee County Port Authority
Passengers: 7.5 million
Tampa International Airport
Operator: Hillsborough County Aviation Authority
Passengers: 19 million
source: the news-press research
In the shadow of the control tower, the man stands hands on hips in a crisp
white shirt watching from behind aviator sunglasses as the intruder scribbles in
a notebook and glances nervously over his shoulder.
Signs on the fence guarding the tower at Southwest Florida International Airport warn: VISITORS ENTERING THIS FACILITY CONSENT TO INSPECTIONS FOR WEAPONS AND EXPLOSIVES.
The intruder is close enough to the tower’s darkened windows to hit the glass with a stone, or some other object, if his aim is true.
When he peers again over his shoulder at the airport’s fire and rescue station, the man in the sunglasses is gone.
The intruder is harmless — a reporter from The News-Press. But how could anyone at Southwest Florida International have known?
For more than an hour, the reporter and a photographer walked alongside a 6-foot chain-link fence on the airport’s northern perimeter. Lee County Port Authority police are responsible for patrolling the area, but no officers approached. No squad cars cruised by along the perimeter road, the desolate tarmac where the old airport terminal once stood, or an adjacent cargo road.
An hour on the perimeters of two of the state’s busiest airports, Orlando and
Tampa, along with Naples Municipal Airport, produced the same results. Police
were rarely seen and never confronted the journalists.
Of five airport perimeters investigated by The News-Press, only at Miami International did authorities respond. Eleven minutes after a reporter and photographer began walking along an 8-foot fence on the airport’s west side, Miami-Dade police arrived in three cruisers. Officers demanded identification, ran background checks, then ordered the journalists off the property.
Miami stands alone
The contrast between the response and conditions at Miami and the other four
airports was stark.
No attempts were made to slip inside perimeters — The News-Press’ ethics guidelines do not allow reporters to break the law — but the opportunities were plentiful.
Holes large enough for a person to squeeze through were found in perimeter fences.
At Orlando, such a gap was found within 20 feet of a heavily used taxiway.
Some sections of fence were rusty and crumpling. Strands of barbed wire topping the barriers were loose or fallen. Gates were held closed in some places only by a rusty chain and padlock.
The findings illustrate what some former federal investigators and security researchers call a deep flaw in the nation’s airport security system. They charge that as holiday travelers inside airports jump through a maddening array of security hoops — from packing shampoos in plastic baggies to having their bodies X-rayed by federal screeners — the tarmacs, runways and taxiways beyond the terminals are exposed to the kind of intruders 9/11 taught travelers to fear.
“Perimeter security? What perimeter security?” said Steve Elson, a retired Navy SEAL who in the 1990s headed a crack team of agents charged with testing airport security for the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Perimeter security is a joke. No one’s paying any attention to it,” he said, “and no one’s going to until there’s another 9/11 and a lot of people are killed.”
The problem was highlighted here Aug. 8 when Jack Brems, 34, of San Carlos Park, sped through a steel security gate at Southwest Florida International and led police on a wild seven-minute chase on an airport runway. He is awaiting federal trial in the case.
The gate where Brems broke through has since been removed, replaced by a fence and fronted by two 4,800-pound concrete barriers.
“We’ve taken additional measures that I can’t comment on,” said Maj. Richard Silverthorn, assistant chief of security for the Lee County Port Authority police department. Still, he admitted: “There are laws of physics, and I can’t tell you that no one can ever drive a car through a fence here.”
Breaches such as the one at Southwest Florida aren’t uncommon.
Three men being chased by police crashed a vehicle through a perimeter fence Oct. 31 at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. On Sept. 11, five years after the terrorist attacks, a homeless man strolled through an open gate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport into an area allowing access to planes and fuel tanks. In both cases, police arrested the suspects without incident.
“There are many more cases that that you never hear about,” said Robert Sproc, vice president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, one of two pilots groups that gave perimeter security low marks in recent airport security report cards. “People who don’t even know what they are doing are getting in. It’s alarming.”
Airport federal security directors — hired by the Transportation Security Administration to oversee security at the nation’s 450 commercial airports — say tests such as those conducted by The News-Press don’t show how quickly authorities would react if an intruder penetrated the perimeter.
“If you went inside that fence, I think you might have been very unpleasantly surprised,” said Dario Compain, the federal security director at Tampa, Sarasota-Bradenton and St. Petersburg airports.
But people such as Elson and others who have studied aviation security say detecting people inside the perimeter can be difficult, particularly in remote, poorly lit areas — which frequently abound at large commercial airports stretching over more than 3,000 acres.
“It’s a severe problem,” said Bogdan Dzakovic, a federal whistleblower and former FAA security investigator who has charged that he and his agents warned federal officials about aviation’s vulnerability to breaches and hijackings long before 9/11.
“There is a lot of area to cover. And it’s a low priority in the minds of a lot of people.”
Federal security directors insist that’s not so.
“Obviously, it’s very important that the perimeter of any airport be secure,” said Lee Kair, security director at Orlando International Airport. “We take that very seriously. It’s absolutely a high priority.”
Holes found in a fence alongside a taxiway at the airport will be repaired, Kair vowed.
“That’s a concern for us, and we’ll take care of it,” he said.
More than 130 police patrol Miami International Airport and a SWAT team is
ready if big trouble arises. Airport workers are being trained to spot
suspicious behavior inside and outside the airport. And few of the easy access
points spotted elsewhere are found at Miami, where most of the 8-foot perimeter
fence is backed by guardrails or concrete barriers.
The airport in 2004 landed a $1.2 million TSA grant to add video surveillance systems, and officials say there are plenty of other secret security steps invisible to the naked eye.
“We’re working every day to bolster the perimeter here,” said Miami-Dade police Sgt. Rudy Espinosa, who coordinates the airport’s incident containment team. “That area’s very important. If someone breaches that perimeter fence, there are major runways right there. It would be a significant problem. That’s why we watch that area very closely.”
Perimeter security doesn’t command the same attention from
The feds have poured $20 billion into aviation security since the terrorist attacks.
Federal officials couldn’t provide a precise breakdown of how the money has been spent, but much of it has been invested in passenger and baggage screening — nearly $1.5 billion has been spent on explosives detection technology alone — while perimeter security projects have languished without funding.
“Here’s the reality,” Elson said. “When you’re talking about (passenger) checkpoints, you’re talking about something that everybody can see, something that gives people the feeling that the government is doing something. It’s political. Passenger screening is important, but it’s only part of it. If you’re X-raying my body, and somebody’s walking in through an open gate somewhere or getting in through a fence, what good does it do?”
Technologies to bolster perimeter security are abundant, ranging from motion
detectors to shock wires that zap intruders who touch fences, but the price tags
are high — in the tens of millions of dollars in some cases — particularly when
stretched over the dozens of miles of fence that guard airport land. Some
officials doubt that the payoff matches the investment.
“It’s nearly impossible to make airports impenetrable,” said Robert Ball, executive director of the Lee County Port Authority. “There’s only so much money out there, and some of those resources have to be made available to seaports, bus stations, other modes of transportation. Besides, we can’t make airports fortresses.”
Nor could money and technology alone be counted upon to cover the gaps in airport perimeters, Dzakovic said.
“People still have to look at the TV screens, respond when an alarm goes off, be vigilant,” he said. “People have to patrol, they have to be visible. You can put up a 20-foot fence, but terrorists will still find a way in if you don’t have people patrolling.
People are much more of a deterrent than any technology.”
Yet at Orlando and Tampa, two large, bustling airports where more than 50 million travelers passed through gates last year, such deterrents seemed nonexistent when The News-Press visited.
Security directors there argued that appearances might have been deceiving. “Just because you didn’t see us doesn’t mean we didn’t see you,” Kair said.
But Carlos Fernandez is skeptical.
He is preparing to move his food distribution business from an aging warehouse on Tampa International’s eastern flank opposite the terminal. His friends tell him the spot must be ideal because of the airport’s tight security.
But that wasn’t a concern for the thieves who broke in and stole $300 in petty cash from Fernandez’ office several weeks ago.
“Somebody could die there,” Fernandez said, shaking his head as he gestures toward a slumping section of fence dark with rust and overrun by weeds. “If I don’t see him or one of my employees doesn’t see him, nobody would ever know. Nobody ever comes back here.”
Losing the petty cash and a computer he no longer used doesn’t ruffle Fernandez. But other possibilities bother him.
“The airport and the planes, they’re all right there,” Fernandez said, raising his voice over the whine of jet engines. “And nobody’s watching.”
Gaps show surprising lapse, say local fliers
Curt Farran isn't put off by the prospect of X-rays, pat-downs and long lines
at airport checkpoints when he travels.
In fact, the 54-year-old bank executive has seen far more intrusive security during trips to Aruba and Cabo San Lucas.
"They hand-search all of your bags. It's very tight, much stricter than anything we see here," Farran, of Indianapolis, said Thursday after he and his wife arrived at Southwest Florida International Airport for a getaway. "We welcome it. We would much rather they be overly cautious."
Farran and other travelers were surprised to learn that despite a growing
number of security steps inside U.S. airports, an investigation by The
News-Press found apparent gaps in perimeter security at Southwest Florida and
two of the state's largest airports, Orlando and Tampa, along with Naples
Authorities at Miami International quickly ordered a reporter and photographer off airport property. But at each of the other airports, journalists seldom saw police and never were approached.
Holes in fences were found near a heavily used taxiway in Orlando and along a
desolate tarmac at Southwest Florida and at the bottom of a fence in
"I'm shocked to hear that," Farran said. Nodding toward a perimeter fence, he noted, "It's something I never thought about, but when you look down this fence line, you can see it'd be pretty easy to get in, especially after dark."
Security officials say holes in fences will be repaired and response would have been swift had a journalist stepped inside an airport perimeter.
Travelers interviewed at Southwest Florida give security officials there and
elsewhere mostly passing marks.
"I really think they're doing a good job," nursing school teacher Lynne Arya of Sanibel said. "It's a tough job. If somebody's going to do something, I think they'll find a way."
But tight patrols on perimeters are essential, she said.
"That's what security is, checking out suspicious people," Arya said.
That task takes on added significance during the holiday travel season, which ends Jan. 3.
About 42 million people are expected to travel on U.S. airlines during the
21-day season, according to the Air Transport Association of America, an
industry trade group.
The federal Transportation Security Administration has put airports on a high security alert and urged holiday travelers to, among other precautions, leave gifts unwrapped and to forgo carry-on toiletries, food items, perfumes or other liquids weighing more than three ounces.
Those steps and others taken since 9/11 don't impress Steve Ruff of
"I really think security has softened a good bit since then," the 48-year-old dentist said as he wheeled away his luggage from the baggage claim area at Southwest Florida. "I fly a lot, and I just don't see the same level of security that I saw right after 9/11."
He pointed to The News-Press investigation as further proof.
"That's a very important part of security," he said. "There are a lot of ways to cause problems by getting in out there. Leaving that area unprotected doesn't make a lot of sense."
An American Airlines flight lands at Miami International Airport. The airport's perimeter road is patrolled regularly and barricades surround the airfield.