After teen’s fatal fall from airliner, Congress questions airport security

McClatchy NewspapersMay 16, 2012 

— The case of a Charlotte, N.C., teenager who died after stowing away in the wheel well of a jet was part of a federal hearing Wednesday on airport security problems.

Delvonte Tisdale’s ability to breach security at Charlotte Douglas International Airport was one of a list of security problems at America’s airports that have raised the ire of the public and members of Congress who are concerned about the next 9/11-type attack.

Tisdale, 16, snuck into the left wheel well of a Boeing 737 on Nov. 15, 2010, before it departed to Boston. He fell from the airplane around 9 p.m. as it passed over the Boston suburbs heading to Logan Airport.

“He wasn’t an employee and he got into a sterile area,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who noted Tisdale’s case in his opening statement. “We still don’t know how that issue has been fixed or how it occurred. We can’t continue to kick the can down the road when situations like this happen.”

Thompson said he didn’t see any improvements in perimeter security that could prevent a similar event from happening.

The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security sought better understanding of whether recent reports of security breaches and unauthorized access to tarmacs were anomalies or systemic failures. Members focused much of their indignation on the Transportation Security Administration. They paid particular attention to an inspector general report of six major airports released this week that found more than half of all security breaches were never reported to higher officials.

In one egregious case, TSA officers failed to report that a passenger entered a secure area with a handwritten boarding pass, according to the report.

It’s been more than 10 years since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and no similar attack has occurred.

In 2011, Transportation Security Administration officers screened more than 603 million passengers at 450 airports across the country and stopped more than 125,000 prohibited items, including 1,300 firearms.

John Sammon, assistant administrator of the TSA’s Office of Security Policy and Industry Engagement, told lawmakers that the agency is working on improvements. The agency is developing a uniform definition of a security breach and is creating a comprehensive oversight program that would gather information on all security breaches, he said.

Lawmakers were not satisfied.

Outside security around aircraft is a joke, said Rep. Chip Cravaack, a Minnesota Republican and a former airline pilot who said more must be done to prevent the next 9/11-style attack.

“The next incident is going to come from the ground,” he said. “It’s going to come from the shadow of the aircraft. It’s not going to come through the passenger terminal.”

In March, a man crashed his vehicle through a locked gate at Philadelphia International Airport and sped toward a plane as it was taking off.

At the Atlanta airport, an employee was captured on video swiping his badge to let another person into a restricted area.

Charlotte aviation director Jerry Orr could not be immediately reached for comment. Last year, he told lawmakers in Washington that the TSA was "more interested in avoiding responsibility" than finding out what happened to Tisdale. Orr has in the past criticized the effectiveness of the TSA and has said individual airports could do a better job at airport security than the federal agency.

The Transportation Security Administration completed an investigation into how Tisdale may have breached Charlotte security in November, but spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said details were not released for security reasons.

“TSA continues to oversee (Charlotte’s) airport security plan to ensure the airport operator, the airlines and airport law enforcement remain in compliance with the strict TSA-approved regulations designed to maintain the security of the airport and the airfield,” she said in a statement.

Massachusetts investigators have speculated that Tisdale climbed over the Charlotte airport’s six-foot-high chain-link fence, which is topped with barbed wire.

More hearings are expected on perimeter security issues, according to Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican who chaired the subcommittee hearing.

“There is no such thing as 100 percent secure, but a teenage boy ought to not be able to get through,” he said. “And we have to find out why that happens.”

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @francoordonez.

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