Intruders breach U.S. airports’ security about once every 10 days

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A plane lands at O’Hare Airport over a perimeter fence. Sun-Times file photo

As Americans wait in ever-longer security screening lines inside airport terminals, newly obtained records show dozens more instances of breaches of airports’ outer defenses are happening than officials have disclosed.

In Chicago, people climbed over or crashed cars through security fencing around O’Hare Airport and Midway Airport 12 times from 2004 through mid-February, more than authorities previously have acknowledged, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Last year, when first asked by reporters about breaches, Chicago’s Department of Aviation cited five of them. Federal records revealed another four. A spokeswoman for the aviation department — which operates O’Hare and Midway — would not explain the discrepancy. In all, there were four intruder breaches in 2015 — the most for any year since 2006.

Airports say their outer defenses are strong, that the miles of fences, gates and guardhouses protecting their properties are secure and that many intruders who get through anyway are quickly caught. They also note that none of the 345 breaches AP documented involved a known terrorist plot.

Nationally, though, breaches remain as frequent as ever, with someone hopping over, crawling under, driving cars through or using fake credentials to get past perimeter gates and fences and reaching a secure area, on average, once every 9.5 days at one of the nation’s 31 major U.S. airports.

That’s despite some investments to fortify airfields to prevent people from sneaking onto runways and planes since an AP investigation last year documented incidents including a man who tossed a bike over a fence at O’Hare and made it inside a passenger terminal and an intruder in Phoenix who was nearly hit by a plane preparing to take off.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration says some incidents shouldn’t count as breaches, even when intruders got deep into secure areas. Was it a perimeter security breach in March 2015 when a woman walked past a vehicle exit gate at San Francisco International Airport and onto the tarmac and tried to flag down a jet for a trip home to Guatemala? No, according to airport and TSA officials, who tried to suppress information on the case.

Nor did they label it a breach when a man, following voices only he could hear, drove through a San Francisco security gate and asked a worker fueling a plane: When’s the next flight?

After initially discussing intrusions openly, the TSA started withholding details, arguing their release could expose vulnerabilities.

But following a two-year legal struggle with the TSA, AP used newly released information to create the most comprehensive public tally of breaches. The count shows an intruder broke through security surrounding one of 31 major U.S. airports, on average, every 13 days from 2004 through mid-February. Since 2012, though, the average is once every 9.5 days.

Many scaled barbed-wired fences or walked past vehicle checkpoints. Others crashed cars into fences and barriers.

The tally covers breaches at airports that handle three-quarters of U.S. passengers. It’s sure to be an undercount because several airports refused to provide complete information.

It’s impossible for airports and law enforcement to keep everyone out, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said.

“The question is: What’s your ability to detect it?” Neffenger said. “And … what might you do to mitigate that happening in the future?”

Perimeters are not “a gaping vulnerability,” said Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security for the Airports Council International-North America.

The problem isn’t even as bad as records suggest, according to Bidwell, because some people were detected immediately.

But video cameras and guards don’t always spot intruders.

For instance, after eluding security and reaching parked planes at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, a man warned an airport worker in December that he “better not say” anything. Authorities never found the man, though they did arrest three others in 2015 — including one who drove his vehicle in with a convoy entering the airfield during Pope Francis’s visit. The four intrusions were the most at JFK in any year.

Altogether, there were at least 39 breaches nationwide in 2015 — also the annual average from 2012 through 2015. The low was 34 in 2013 and the high 42 in 2012, when incidents spiked after years hovering around 20 breaches.

Police reports suggest many trespassers were disoriented, drunk or delusional. Some were caught immediately, others not for hours. Five had knives, one a loaded gun.

Aviation security consultant Jeff Price said the TSA and airports haven’t done enough to address gaps in perimeter security.

“The straight-up honest answer as to why it’s not being vigorously addressed?” Price said. “Nothing bad’s happened — yet.”

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