Under pressure to prevent people from sneaking onto runways and planes at major U.S. airports, authorities are cracking down — not on the intruders who slip through perimeter gates or jump over fences, but on the release of information about the breaches.
A year after an Associated Press investigation first revealed persistent problems with airports' outer defenses, breaches remain as frequent as ever — about once every 10 days — despite some investments to fortify the nation's airfields. As Americans wait in ever-longer security screening lines inside terminals, new documents show dozens more incidents happening outside perimeters than airports have disclosed.
At the same time, leaders at some airports and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration are saying some of the 345 incidents AP found shouldn't count as security 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, where she tried to flag down a jet for a trip home to Guatemala? No it was not, said the airport and TSA officials, who also tried to suppress information about the case.
After discussing intrusions openly at first, officials at several airports and the TSA started withholding details, arguing the release could expose vulnerabilities.
Following a two-year legal struggle with the TSA, AP has now used newly released information to create the most comprehensive public tally of perimeter security breaches. The 345 incidents took place at 31 airports that handle three-quarters of U.S. passenger travel. And that's an undercount, because several airports refused to provide complete information.
Different methods of entry
The count shows that an intruder broke through the security surrounding one of those airports on average every 13 days from the beginning of 2004 through mid-February; starting in 2012, the average has been every 9.5 days. Many intruders scaled barbed wire-topped fences or walked past vehicle checkpoints. Others crashed cars into chain link and concrete barriers.
Airport officials point out that no case involved a known terrorist plot. Police reports suggest many trespassers were disoriented, intoxicated or delusional. Some came on skateboards and bikes, while others commandeered vehicles on the tarmac. One man got into a helicopter cockpit and was preparing to take off.
Five intruders brought knives and one a loaded gun.
Over the past year, the TSA and airports have been focused less on perimeter security than on stopping weapons that passengers or baggage handlers try to sneak onto planes.
Democratic U.S. Rep. William Keating of Massachusetts reacted to AP's findings by saying the TSA must extend its focus beyond screening passengers.
"It's like saying your door is locked but your window's wide open," he said.