Airport security looms large in the American imagination. Since the 9/11 hijackings, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security procedures have become more onerous—some say invasive—and the feds have developed a massive intelligence-gathering operation that spans agencies like the NSA, FBI, and local police departments. It's routine to see large military men with assault rifles at airports. Tubes of toothpaste are not as innocuous as we once thought, and open water bottles are most certainly unchill.
But an Associated Press investigation published Thursday reveals that it's still incredibly easy to break onto airport runways—and even board planes about to take off:
In all, an Associated Press investigation found 268 perimeter security breaches since 2004 at airports that together handle three-quarters of US commercial passenger traffic. And that's an undercount, because two airports among the 31 that AP surveyed didn't have data for all years, while four others—Boston's Logan and the New York City area's three main airports—refused to release any information, citing security concerns.
Until now, few of these incidents have been publicly reported. Most involved intruders who wanted to take a shortcut, were lost, disoriented, drunk or mentally unstable but seemingly harmless. A few trespassers had knives, and one man who drove past a raised security gate at O'Hare in January had a loaded handgun on the vehicle console. He told police he was bypassing train tracks.
None of the incidents involved a terrorist plot, according to airport officials.
The investigation uncovered five cases where intruders actually made it onto airplanes, suggesting it might be time to focus less on what happens inside airports and more on their surroundings. Then again, as the AP notes, these security breaches didn't result in anything truly awful happening, which means it may not be necessary to achieve the same level of security as, say, Israel, where Ben Gurion airport is essentially a military base. (While the TSA handles everything that goes on between the moment you step foot in an airport and get off at the other end, perimeter security is left to a mix of airport cops and private security guards.)
The AP report did not cover airports in New York City because officials with the Port Authority refused to disclose the number of breaches, but it seems likely that those airports have had similar security lapses involving people who had no idea what they were doing—like Craig Gallo, the New Jersey boat captain who crashed into the runway at La Guardia airport last year while indulging in a drunken threesome.
It's too early to tell whether public officials will respond by heightening security, but Bay Area Congressman Eric Swalwell, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, wasted no time in denouncing the situation.
"We're very vulnerable to people wandering around the airport grounds before they're confronted," he told San Francisco's CBS affiliate.
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