Wednesday, May 7, 2008
How Secure Are Our Airports?
"The further we get from 9/11 the more nonchalant we become." - Expert
Tony Lopez reporting
KOVR-TV Ch 13 (CBS), Sacramento (CA)
SACRAMENTO (CBS13) ¯ The airports are small but the security concerns are big. That's according to a terrorism expert CBS13 asked to show us how secure our small airports are.
We started at Sacramento Executive airport. Once airport officials at Executive saw our photographer snooping around their security guards came out in force. The same can't be said for other airports we paid a visit. In fact, in some instances, we spent hours wandering the grounds without question.
We see them all the time and we don't give them a second thought. But as small airplanes take to the skies over the Sacramento valley we ask: "who's making sure these planes don't fall into the wrong hands?"
We all know what can happen when aircraft become weapons. Even though we haven't had another 9/11, small airports remain a 'soft target' for terrorists.
"The softer the target, the better it is," says Dr. Lionel Von Frederick Rawlins, a terrorism expert CBS-13 asked to check out the security at our local airports. Dr. Rawlins isn't just a terrorism expert. He's currently advising the U.S. military on how to make Iraq and Afghanistan more secure. Sure, Lincoln Regional airport may be far from a war zone, but Dr. Rawlins believes the potential is there for an explosive situation. At one hangar door he spotted a battery being charged, right by a wide open door.
"Do you know what kind of explosion you can make with that?" asked Rawlins.
We spent nearly two hours circling the outside of the Lincoln airport which is owned and operated by the city of Lincoln. In addition to finding doors wide open, just steps from the street we found people coming in and out without being checked for identification. We came across gates that looked closed, but with openings narrow enough for someone to get through.
"Any one of us can slither right through there," says Dr. Rawlins of the security gates. "We are slender enough to do so and we can go and take one of those planes."
We also found an electronic gate where Dr. Rawlins was able to pull the gate open wide enough that a person could get through and walk straight through and onto the tarmac. In fact, anyone with bad intentions could easily slip on through, get onto the tarmac, find an airplane with an unlocked door and be up in the air in mere minutes.
"Anyone who can fly a plane can steal one," says Dr. Rawlins, "it's almost like hotwiring a car."
After that, it's anyone's guess what could happen. Just as our nation's capitol building was an intended target ours could be as well. It was targeted once before. In January of 2001, just eight months before the terrorist attacks on 9/11, a man drove a semi onto the capitol lawn, slamming his truck into the capitol, its cab bursting into flames. Lincoln could be just minutes away from the capitol if someone stole a plane.
Lincoln isn't the only small airport in our area with what our expert calls questionable security. At the Vacaville General Aviation Airport we walked around for more than an hour. Even though it appeared cameras may have been watching our every move, no one came out to ask what we were doing.
"It's just deserted over here," said Dr. Rawlins, "there's no one over here."
But unlike what we found at the Lincoln airport, the entrance gate in Vacaville couldn't be opened. The outside fence, though, meant to keep people out, had what our expert called some design flaws: a gap so big underneath that you can crawl straight onto airport grounds.
We also checked another small airport, the privately run Woodland Aviation. Here we ran into something new: airport personnel who actually came out to ask what the heck we were doing.
"I feel it's very secure," says Gary Pelfrey, who runs the Woodland airport. He strongly disagrees with our expert who pointed out what he called "easy access" to the airplanes.
"How difficult would it be to jump over there, jump over there, jump in the plane and take off," said Dr. Rawlins. "Over there," says Dr. Rawlins, pointing to a tank filled with airplane fuel, "that's explosives, chemicals."
So who's watching our small airports? Both the TSA and the Office of Emergency Services tell us it's up to the owner and operator of each individual small airport to make sure they're secure. While the TSA does provide support and guidance when asked, its focus is on larger airports.
So what's come of our investigation? Lincoln airport officials tell us they're having their maintenance crew step up patrols. Hangar doors, they admit, should always stay closed. The fence also shouldn't be so easy to open.
Two new security fences are on order, scheduled to be replaced sometime next year. Because of our story that improvement, we're told, will happen sooner.
Meantime, Vacaville airport officials promised us this flaw in their perimeter fencing is only temporary. They say the ground was being prepared for landscaping and the gap will be closed.
What might be harder to change is the mindset of many in the aviation industry. Dr. Lionel VonFrederick Rawlins puts it in these terms: "The further we get from 9/11 the more nonchalant we become."