SAN JOSE -- The director of San Jose's airport on Tuesday called the unusual security breach involving a teen stowaway who sneaked onto the airfield a "very serious" incident that could spark changes in how the airport protects its passengers.
But Aviation Director Kim Aguirre couldn't say in her first comments about the episode who was responsible for guarding the aircraft and monitoring the security cameras that had captured images of the boy slipping onto the airfield -- a breach that went unnoticed until he emerged from the plane after it landed in Hawaii.
Aguirre said she doesn't yet know specifically what the airport can do to ensure no one else illegally accesses the airfield again and strongly defended the airport's security record in the face of nationwide scrutiny. Even in a post-9/11 world, in which passengers must endure frustrating security lines while the airport deploys a vast network of security cameras and 3,000 employees responsible for security, the teenager's journey was proof there are holes.
"I wish that every system was fool proof, but it's just not," said Aguirre, who returned to San Jose on Tuesday after a planned family trip to Portland. "We're going to take a look at this incident and figure out what we can do different, better -- learn from it."
Aguirre and aviation experts cautioned against any knee-jerk reactions to completely overhaul how airports locally and nationwide secure their perimeters in the wake of the media frenzy over the boy, who somehow survived in a wheel well on a 5½-hour flight from San Jose to Hawaii on Sunday. The details that have emerged in the case of the unidentified boy, who has not been charged, show how he somehow slipped through what is already a vast network of technology and manpower.
First, he scaled a six-foot fence topped with barbed wire on the north end of the airport.
And despite an extensive airport-wide camera system and regular police and employee patrols that cover the area, he picked a spot where cameras didn't pick him up, and he wasn't seen by workers, the airport said.
Once on the airfield, security cameras captured an image that appeared to be the boy, airport officials said, but apparently no one monitoring the closed-circuit video system saw it.
Still, all employees on the airfield, who go through training to receive access badges, must by federal rules "challenge" any person they see without a badge in the area, or else they're subject to a fine.
It's unclear whether the workers didn't see the boy or didn't say anything.
Finally, the boy hopped onto a Hawaiian Airlines flight's wheel well even though the airline says its maintenance crews are supposed to do early checks of the aircraft, including the wheel well. Later, however, when the pilot and other crew members were checking the plane before takeoff, they did not check the wheel well because its doors are mostly closed, and the area is not visible, the airline said. The airport wouldn't say if its cameras captured the teen's climb into the wheel well, saying it was sensitive security information. San Jose in 2010 unveiled a $1.3 billion modernization at the airport, though the boy apparently slipped through an older part of the airport.
"You've got enough layers in the system -- it's just a case where it seemed the system didn't work," said Jeff Price, an aviation security author and professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver.
Richard Bloom, the director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, agreed, saying perimeter security breaches are still rare.
"This doesn't mean we should radically change how we do aviation security," he said. It's just that "with all these different layers of security, none of them is 100 percent accurate. Each has its own vulnerabilities."
In San Jose's case, while much of its detailed protection plan is private for security reasons, its overall system meets the Transportation Security Administration's guidelines and features protections similar to those in place at San Francisco International Airport. Officials at Oakland's airport declined to provide any information on their security.
Aguirre said the airport will wait for the TSA's investigation before deciding what security upgrades will be made, if any. Even 2½ days after the incident, she said there was no obvious security gap -- "no hole in the fence," for instance -- that needed immediate fixing.
One possible factor was that while it's still not clear exactly when the teenager hopped the fence, it happened in the wee hours during the airport's curfew, when the frequency of flights is greatly reduced. Fewer security and civilian employees are at the airport during those hours, though Aguirre said they patrol the area and monitor security cameras 24 hours a day and rejected any notion that the airport is more vulnerable during off-peak times.
She and other airport officials emphasized that they could not remember this sort of breach ever happening before and that overall, the airport has an exceptional safety record.
"The key point is we are doing everything in our power to prevent any kind of security breaches," Aguirre said. "As we continue to grow and learn from these types of events, we'll make improvements if and when necessary."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.