Most airports have poor perimeter security

NEW YORK — I think we can all agree that the real world doesn’t have nearly enough heists. Smash-and-grabs, yes; drug-fueled residential burglaries, yes. But carefully choreographed master plans involving diamonds, disguises and people who look like David Niven? We could always use more of those.

And so three cheers for the intrepid jewel thieves who made off with approximately $50 million worth of diamonds in Belgium the other day. Eight men disguised as police officers drove two vehicles through a hole in a fence at Brussels Airport, brandished some machine guns, and made away with the jewels, which had just been transferred from an armored truck to the cargo hold of a Zurich-bound airplane. The whole caper took about five minutes.

There are many great things about this heist: its audacity, its precision, its similarity to the plot of a Guy Ritchie movie. But the part that really grabbed my attention was the fence. The thieves were able to cut a large hole in a perimeter fence at an international airport, drive a van and an Audi through it, and then, five minutes later, make their escape through that same hole, all without attracting attention from security. How was this possible? Were the guards tired from eating too much chocolate, or drinking too much fruit-flavored beer, or whatever else stereotypical Belgians consume? Just how secure are airport perimeters?

I can’t really speak for the entire world, but, if we’re talking about American airports, the answer is “not very.” There’s no consistent standard for airport perimeter security in America; its implementation and maintenance is left up to individual airports, not the Transportation Security Administration. The types of fences used vary widely, as does the assiduousness with which these fences are patrolled.

If you think that most airport fences are monitored by cameras, or motion sensors, or alarms that might deter potential fence-climbers, well, think again. According to congressional testimony from Rafi Ron, an airport security consultant and former director of security at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, “most of our airports today are still not protected by an operating perimeter intrusion detection systems ⅛sic€. In other terms, we don’t know when a breach occurs.” Even when those systems do exist, they don’t always work; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey paid Raytheon at least $100 million for a perimeter intrusion detection system, only to be embarrassed last year when a stranded, dripping-wet jet skier hopped a fence at John F. Kennedy International Airport and walked across the tarmac and into the Delta terminal without attracting any attention.

For all the money and attention that in-airport screening gets, the back doors to airports are, comparatively, wide open – and people go through them all the time. In March 2012, an Adderall addict named Kenneth Mazik crashed his Jeep through a fence at Philadelphia International Airport and drove it up and down various runways before being stopped. In November 2012, an employee at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, having forgotten his lunch or jacket or something, had a friend toss a bag containing the item over the perimeter fence. Unfortunately, the bag got stuck on the fence, and a video shows the employee actually climbing up on the fence to get it down. Security didn’t notice.

There’s more. In July 2012, a pilot named Brian Hedglin used a rug to cover the razor wire at the perimeter fence at Utah’s St. George Municipal Airport; he then climbed the fence and attempted to steal a SkyWest Airlines jet. (After crashing the plane in a parking lot, Hedglin shot himself in the head.) In 2010, a North Carolina teen-ager named Delvonte Tisdale stowed away in the wheel well of a Boeing 737; his mutilated body was later found in Milton, Mass., after having fallen from the sky when the landing gear went down. Investigators have speculated that Tisdale accessed the wheel well after climbing a perimeter fence at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

You get the picture. Perimeter security breaches happen all the time, and the fact that many of them are relatively benign doesn’t make the problem any less serious. This isn’t a dig at America’s airports. They have miles of fencing to monitor, and limited budgets with which to do so; they are often located in urban areas, with neighbors who don’t want to live next door to a 12-foot electrified fence topped with razor wire. And, perhaps more relevant, these airports don’t appear to get much assistance from the TSA.

The TSA is supposed to help assess security levels at America’s airports, and to help airports patch their vulnerabilities. But in a 2011 congressional hearing on airport perimeter security, Rep. John F. Tierney, D-Mass., noted that, in 2009, the Government Accountability Office found that the TSA had “failed to implement a national strategy to address perimeter security, and that only a small percentage of airports had completed joint vulnerability assessments.” The aviation director of the Charlotte, N.C., airport blasted the TSA for being arrogant and non-communicative. “Congress should redirect some of the available funding for airport security from TSA directly to airports,” he argued. “The operator is most familiar with the airport’s vulnerabilities and strengths and is well equipped to make effective enhancements.”

The testimony at the hearing made it clear that airport security is only as strong as its weakest link. This seems self-evident. Yet, despite all the money and manpower wasted on airport security theater in this country and around the world, perimeter security remains so lax that a guy with a costume and some bolt cutters can make a hole large enough to drive a van through. This is great news for heist fans, to be sure. But it’s pretty alarming for everyone else.

More in Local News

Video shows man suspected of attacking a woman in Edmonds

The man allegedly threw her on the ground, then ran away after the she began kicking and screaming.

Roommate suspected in Edmonds killing found hiding in closet

Police had been searching for him for 10 days before locating him at a house in Everett.

Former Monroe cop loses appeal on sex crimes conviction

Once a highly respected officer, he was found guilty of secretly videotaping his kids’ babysitter.

Officials to test sanity of suspect in Everett crime spree

He allegedly tried to rob and clobber a transit worker, then fled and struggled with police.

Suspect sought in two Everett bank robberies

He’s described as 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-1, with dark hair and a goatee, and may have a neck tattoo.

Navy to put filter in Coupeville’s contaminated water system

Chemicals from firefighting foam was found in the town’s drinking water.

Two missing men found, one alive and one dead

The man found alive was found in an apartment across the hallway and taken to a hospital.

Darrington School Board dealing with upheavals

The crux of the controversy seems to be the superintendent’s job.

Alaska Airlines has selected destinations for new service from Paine Field. (Alaska Airlines)
Alaska Airlines will fly from Everett to 8 West Coast cities

Two destinations that didn’t make the list were Spokane and Hawaii.

Most Read