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How Did the Teen Stowaway Evade Airport Security?

A teen stowaway who survived a 5-hour flight raises questions about the security of our airport perimeters.
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While the rest of us can't board a flight without submitting our socks for inspections, a 16-year old boy managed to sneak into an airplane's wheel-well Sunday and take a free ride from San Jose to Maui. He survived, but the incident raises serious questions about airport security.

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The boy would have had to hop a fence, evade video surveillance, and make his way past airport and airline personnel, said Douglas R. Laird, former head of security for Northwest Airlines.

But each layer has a soft spot and budget priorities keep eyes elsewhere.

"If it happens once every five or ten years, is it worth spending millions of dollars?" said Laird.

Even a fence in compliance with government security standards can be breached, he said. And it didn't matter that the the teen was caught on video. The costs can be too great to have someone watch all that tape or to install pixel-analysis technology that can detect movement and alert the command center.

Everyone on the tarmac is required to sport photo identification and to be challenged if they're not carrying ID. Failure to follow any of safety protocol can result in civil penalties for the airport and even for the employees themselves. That system appears to have failed.

A former pilot said he never spent a lot of time watching out for stowaways.

"I'm focusing on my safety checks, my procedures, and preparing for takeoff," he said. "Unless someone really looked out of place I wouldn't think to question them. I'd presume that security was watching out for that."

A Mineta San Jose International Airport spokeswoman said airport police were working with the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration to review security at the facility as part of an investigation.

According to an FAA report, stowaways typically hitch a ride by hiding near where aircraft wait to take-off. Then they shimmy up the landing gear and stash themselves in a pocket next to where the landing gear retracts.

But preventing such incidents simply aren't big blips on the radar.

Security experts analyze threat vectors to see the likelihood, potential damage and cost of various attacks, and figure out where you get the most for your buck.

"When you do a scientific study like that, the airport perimeter doesn't get high scores," said Laird. "In the history of aviation sabotage, I can't think of a person ever hopping a perimeter fence."