Hiding in a Wheel Well

It is a well-known fact that video surveillance cameras can help detect trespassers; however, if no one is looking at the surveillance or if the human element has not been notified of a breach, trespassing can leap to new heights.

Case in point is a 16-year-old runaway from San Jose, Calif. who argues with his father, runs to the nearby airport and stows away in the front landing gear of a Boeing 767 headed for Maui, Hawaii. It’s not like this happens every day, so when a teenager (who at this writing remains unidentified) is so determined to leave the United States and get to Somalia to visit his mother, this generates news.

How could he not have been caught? Was security asleep at the wheel? Were the video surveillance cameras not properly maintained? Or, worse yet, was no one looking at the images? Also part of the mystery is how the boy survived the five-hour flight.

Surveillance cameras at San Jose International Airport did capture images of the teenager on the tarmac and climbing into the nose gear of the airplane. So, for those who question if this really happened, it would seem that the boy did enter the plane. But, what about the cameras on the perimeter of the tarmac? Shouldn’t his entry at the perimeter have been caught and properly dealt with?

According to John Nance, an ABC News aviation consultant, the weak link is at the perimeter, or the fence, in this case.

“Security was not as effective as expected,” he said. The use of cameras in this situation was a failure because no one noticed the security breach until the plane, and the stowaway, landed in Hawaii.

We all know there is technology available that can be programmed to sound an alert when a line of security has been breached or when there is something that seems potentially suspicious. Implementation of analytics software would probably have successfully alerted officials of the breach, stopping the youth from slipping past layers of security.

Just because something is caught on camera, though, it doesn’t mean it will make an impression; yet, once the boy climbed down from the wheel well in Maui, a definite impression was made.

With proper security in place and with the human element being alerted, there still is no guarantee that the youth would have been detected, even though the chances do increase dramatically.

“Sometimes the actual results are quite underwhelming when it gets to the real world, where people are fatigued; people are preoccupied,” said Richard Bloom, an airport security expert at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. “There is no way to guarantee security, even if you had one person per video screen.”

While security officials at San Jose International Airport are reviewing how the boy slipped onto secure airport property, there has been no indication that those same officials will step up security or police presence at the site, though improvements are expected once a review has been completed. The question remains how the boy was able to scale a fence with barbed wire without injury, and not be detected by German shepherd dogs and Segway-riding police officers. Problem is, not all sections of fencing around the airport have barbed wire, and the youth approached the plane during the early morning hour of 1 a.m.

The fact remains that security still has its weaknesses, despite the billions of dollars spent.

Skeptics believe the boy really didn’t make the flight, but there is video surveillance showing the youth climbing out of the wheel well once the flight landed in Kahului International Airport in Maui. He also was found wandering the tarmac at the airport. I suppose if there is a will, there is a way to make something happen. While the boy didn’t have malicious intent, there are the “what ifs” of someone else with malevolent designs.

On the flip side of this security question, the Federal Aviation Administration said that about onefourth of the 105 stowaways worldwide have survived. It is a remarkable tale that this fella was able to live through the ordeal. Many people have died trying this free ride, if not for the unbearable conditions of altitude, fighting cold, deadly temperatures and lack of oxygen, then for the fact that when the wheel well opens on its glide path to the runway, a body typically falls out.

The fact that this boy is still alive is curious.

California runs the airports in the state, and there are some serious questions being asked and others that need answers. I hope this serves as a wake-up call for all airports nationwide and that security directors will review their multiple layers of security.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Security Today.

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