A Santa Clara teenager's weekend scramble over a fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport and into the wheel well of a Maui-bound airliner is raising concerns about airport security nationwide.
There have been several breaches of airport perimeter fences across the country in recent years, but perhaps none have been as dramatic as the incident Sunday in which the teenager survived a 5½-hour, nonstop flight to Maui.
"If somebody can come onto an airport and get to the wheel well of an airplane, then someone else can plant a bomb or do something else to sabotage an aircraft," Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp., said Monday.
San Jose's sprawling airport is surrounded by 6-foot fences, some sections with barbed wire on top, according to airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes. At least some of the tarmac area is monitored by cameras, but airport officials were unaware of the perimeter breach.
"We have 1,050 acres," Barnes said. "That's a lot of fence line. He could have scaled the fence line really through any area here at the airport. It's very easy to do so under the cover of darkness, and it appears that's what he did."
Barnes said there is surveillance footage of "an unidentified person walking on the airport ramp and approaching" the plane. That footage, however, was not discovered until after the Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 landed in Maui.
"If there is video of him going over the fence, why was there no response?" asked Jenkins, who also directs the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State.
San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed said he's waiting for a review of the incident by the Transportation Security Administration.
"We haven't had a chance to talk with the TSA," Reed said. "We have protocols that are set by the federal government that we follow. Whether or not we need to change those or do anything will depend on the review."
TSA sets the standards for airport perimeter security, but airports are responsible for implementing them, which can vary from airport to airport, with their different geographies and proximity to urban areas. But the breach has raised questions about the procedures in place at San Jose.
The embarrassing incident adds to a string of airport perimeter intrusions over the past few years that has stirred concern in Congress.
"People shouldn't be able to just access a runway or airliner without getting through pretty tight security," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Hayward, who sits on the transportation subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee.
The subcommittee is drafting a request that the Government Accountability Office update its 2009 report on airport perimeter security needs.
Since that report:
Some airports use infrared or radar perimeter sensing systems while others rely on video cameras or even guard dogs and police patrols. No matter how sophisticated the security systems, they ultimately depend on individuals watching monitors, experts said, citing studies that found the attention span of someone watching a bank of 30 monitors is half an hour at best.
Airport spokeswoman Barnes said Mineta's security program "involves many components, including outer perimeter fencing, surveillance video equipment and more than 2,800 badge employees" trained to report security concerns to law enforcement and airport operations.
But those measures weren't enough to deter a teenager.
"Lots of airports around the U.S. depend on visible technology" or video cameras, said Roy Malmberg of FLIR, an Oregon company that makes night-viewing thermal imaging and radar detection systems that some airports have adopted.
But these and other advanced systems are "pricey," noted John Hernandez, an aerospace and defense analyst at Frost and Sullivan, a global consulting firm that works with government contractors.
Airports in general don't place a high priority on perimeter security, he said.
Even in the wake of the latest incident, "I don't see them spending much money on any enhancements other than the basics -- maybe some new cameras, some new key cards, better gates, better fences," he said.
A perimeter for a large airport can be miles. "I suspect that if you put all of the airport perimeters together you'd have something that's longer than the Mexican border," Hernandez said.
Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419 Follow him at Twitter.com/petecarey.