KAHULUI, Hawaii — Surveillance cameras at San Jose International Airport successfully captured the teenager on the tarmac, climbing up the landing gear of a jet. But in the end, the cameras failed because no one noticed the security breach until the plane — and the boy — landed in Hawaii.
Although the 15-year-old apparently wanted nothing more than to run away, his success in slipping past layers of security early Sunday morning made it clear that a determined person can still get into a supposedly safe area and sneak onto a plane.
Video surveillance can help catch trespassers. Some airports use not just human eyes watching video screens, but also technology that can be programmed to sound an alert when a camera captures something potentially suspicious. But just because something is caught on camera does not mean it will make an impression.
Despite great promise, “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’s no way to guarantee security, even if you had one person per video screen.”
There were no obvious efforts Monday to increase security or the police presence at airports in San Jose or Maui. In San Jose, airport officials said they were reviewing how the boy slipped through security that includes video surveillance, German shepherds and Segway-riding police officers.
While each of those measures can work for certain situations, “the problem is that each layer has its own error factor,” Bloom said.
Nobody monitoring security cameras throughout the 1,050-acre airport saw anyone approaching the Boeing 767 until they reviewed the footage after the boy was discovered in Hawaii, San Jose airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said. The airport, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is surrounded by fences, although many sections do not have barbed wire and could easily be scaled.
Barnes said the boy went onto the tarmac when it was still dark. The flight took off at about 8 a.m. PDT, about 90 minutes after sunrise.
The boy was knocked out most of the 5 1/2-hour flight and didn’t regain consciousness until an hour after the plane landed in Hawaii, FBI spokesman Tom Simon said. When he came to, he climbed out of the wheel well and was immediately seen by Maui airport personnel, Simon said.
Surveillance video at Kahului Airport showed the boy getting out of the wheel well after landing, transportation officials in Hawaii said. The video was not released because of the ongoing investigation.
The boy was not charged with a crime, Simon said.
While the Transportation Security Administration oversees checkpoint security inside airport terminals, airport perimeters are policed by local authorities and federal law enforcement.
Airport police were working with the FBI and TSA to review security.
San Jose police said they will forward the findings of their investigation to the district attorney, who can decide whether to file criminal charges in California. Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said the county was not involved with the incident or investigation because the state runs the airports.
The Hawaii Department of Transportation said they didn’t plan to investigate further after turning the boy over to state human services, where officials were working to reunite the boy with his family.
Isaac Yeffet, a former head of security for the Israeli airline El Al who now runs his own firm, Yeffet Security Consultants, said the breach shows that U.S. airport security still has weaknesses, despite billions of dollars invested.
“Shame on us for doing such a terrible job,” he said. “Perimeters are not well protected. We see it again and again.”
U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who serves on the Homeland Security committee, said on Twitter that the incident demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.
The FAA says about one-quarter of the 105 stowaways who have sneaked aboard flights worldwide since 1947 have survived. Some wheel-well stowaways survived deadly cold and a lack of oxygen because their breathing, heart rate and brain activity slow down.
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