Stowaway case highlights security risks
By Alan Levin, USA TODAY
The bizarre case of a 16-year-old boy who died after sneaking aboard a US Airways jet by hiding in its wheel well highlights long-standing concerns about airport security and terrorism, say law enforcement officials and security experts.
Police initially suspected that Delvonte Tisdale, whose battered body was found Nov. 15 in a quiet suburban Boston neighborhood, had been murdered. But an investigation concluded that Tisdale somehow got onto the grounds of his hometown airport, Charlotte Douglas International, and climbed into the wheel well of a Boeing 737 bound for Boston.
Norfolk County (Mass.) District Attorney William Keating says not only did Tisdale’s body and clothing land directly beneath the path of the jet in the area where pilots would have lowered the landing gear in preparation for landing, but investigators also found a palm print that they believe was his in the jet’s wheel compartment.
Keating, who recently won a seat in Congress, says after he is sworn in next month that he intends to ask for a broader investigation into whether airport security is adequate to prevent terrorists getting access to planes.
“Aside from the tragedy, it was a serious breach of security at an airport,” Keating says. “What if someone else had had a more sinister motive?”
Douglas Laird, a security consultant who formerly headed security at Northwest Airlines, says that the breach suggested multiple breakdowns in security.
First, Tisdale was able to sneak onto the airport grounds, which are surrounded by fencing topped by barbed wire. Many workers and vehicles come and go from an airport, but they are supposed to show identification at checkpoints.
Then, it is likely that Tisdale would have encountered airport employees while making his way to the plane during a busy early evening period, Laird says. Federal rules require airport workers to confront and challenge anyone they see on a tarmac without a security badge.
“It’s very troublesome,” Laird says of the incident. “In theory that shouldn’t happen.”
Most are international
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has counted 86 stowaways since 1947 — not including Tisdale’s case — the vast majority of them since the late 1990s. Since 1996, there have been nearly five instances a year around the world.
Most are residents of poor nations who are trying to get to Europe or the USA. According to the FAA data, the only previous report that someone had stowed away in a wheel well at a U.S. airport was the 1972 case of a man who flew from San Diego to New York. His frozen body was found after the jet landed, says FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.
However, Laird’s experience suggests that the FAA may not know about every incident. While he was working at Northwest during the early 1990s, he investigated the case of a man who snuck into a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 at a U.S. airport. The case is not included in the FAA records.
Amazingly, a sizeable number of stowaways survive the experience, even though temperatures at cruising altitudes get as low as -85 degrees and the air is so thin it renders people unconscious.
Out of the 86 cases examined by the FAA, 18 people survived, a total of 21%. Two stowaways survived this year, including a 20-year-old Romanian man who flew from Vienna to London in July.
Those who survived lost so much body heat that they entered a kind of “hibernation” state, which prevented damage to the brain and other organs from the lack of oxygen, according to a 1993 paper by the FAA’s Office of Aviation Medicine.
Intruders are rare
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department are investigating how Tisdale could have gotten aboard the jet. Neither agency has released any findings.
The TSA sets rules for airport security and reviews airport compliance, but it is the airport’s responsibility to ensure intruders do not enter the airport grounds. TSA agents conduct thousands of random checks to ensure employees are vigilant about checking badges, spokeswoman Sterling Payne says.
The current chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and the incoming chairman, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., issued statements saying they are following the matter.
The Airports Council International-North America will work with the TSA “to examine and address any weaknesses” that emerge from the investigation, says the group’s security chief, Chris Bidwell. He says such incidents are extremely rare at U.S. airports.
The jet with Tisdale aboard departed Charlotte at 7:16 p.m., according to the flight tracking website FlightAware, a relatively bustling time at the eighth-busiest airport in the country.
According to the 1993 FAA paper, the most common way people snuck into the wheel well was to wait near the runway for an aircraft to stop briefly. In the case that Laird investigated in the early 1990s, the stowaway stole a mechanic’s uniform and walked to the plane as it sat near the terminal.
Keating says that investigators do not understand the teen’s motive. One clue is that he participated in an Air Force ROTC program at his high school and may have been familiar with airports and aircraft, he says.
Keating says state troopers visited the Charlotte airport, but were leaving the matter of how the teen got onto the airport to the local police.
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