Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011 Teen stowaway mystery still bedevils experts
Teen may have breached fence or had help, airline workers sayDelvonte Tisdale stowed away on a commercial jet and fell out of the aircraft as it neared Boston's Logan Airport The last person to stowaway on a flight from a US airport was on April 14 1972, when a frozen body was found in the left wheel well of a flight from San Diego to New York City, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.Anthony Tisdale, right, father of Delvonte Tisdale, and his mother, Lula Smith, discuss Delvonte's death Nov. 23 in Charlotte.
By Ames Alexander and Steve Harrison
The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE- If investigators in Massachusetts are correct, a Charlotte teenager who had never before flown somehow penetrated an airport security system designed to thwart the most savvy terrorists.
Two months later, the question of how he did it continues to flummox airline employees and security experts. And it may soon become the focus of a congressional hearing.
Massachusetts investigators say they believe 16-year-old Delvonte Tisdale breached security at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport on Nov. 15 and sneaked into the left wheel well of a US Airways plane bound for Boston. Tisdale's battered body was found beneath the flight path in Milton, Mass. He may have fallen from the plane as the jet's landing gear was lowered on the approach to Boston.
Airline employees offer two theories about how Tisdale might have gotten to the plane:
Climbing over or through the 6-foot-high chain-link fence that surrounds the airfield. Security experts say such fences, found around many U.S. airports, present little obstacle to people determined to get onto an airfield.
Traveling with or behind an employee who had authorized access to the airfield. Charlotte airport director Jerry Orr says he believes the security procedures in place make that "piggybacking" theory unlikely. He declined to elaborate.
Bill Wise, head of the US Airways mechanics union at Charlotte/Douglas, said he thinks virtually every entrance to the airfield is under video surveillance.
The airport also has card readers to ensure employees have valid badges before passing security checkpoints.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have put together a task force to investigate how Tisdale may have gotten aboard the plane. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is also investigating.
Newly elected U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., meanwhile, has called for a congressional hearing into Tisdale's death and other breaches of airport security.
"This incident brought up security concerns that an airport's tarmac could be breached so easily," Keating wrote in a Jan. 7 letter to the Committee on Homeland Security. "...We must ensure that our airport security is strengthened beyond its current state, not simply to protect against stowaways, but potential terrorists as well."
Tisdale, a sophomore at North Mecklenburg High, was a member of the school's ROTC program. His family will probably sue the airport and the airline, according to lawyers they've retained. The lawyers contend the security system failed, but say they're unable to explain precisely how Tisdale circumvented it.
"We have done a tremendous amount of homework, but we don't know how he got there," said Danielle Cohen, a managing partner in the Gainesville, Fla., law firm retained by the family. "We know he didn't map out a master plan and e-mail it to a best friend."
'Just a visual deterrent'
Charlotte's massive airfield is surrounded by about 19 miles of chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire.
Several airport security experts interviewed by the Observer say such 6-foot fences are easily breached.
"I don't think you'll find anyone in our industry who will tell you that a 6-foot fence is going to prevent much of anything," said Drew Deatherage, senior security specialist with Moye Consulting, a Texas-based company that designs security systems. "It's really just a visual deterrent."
Gerhard Schiller, CEO of Metalco, an Illinois-based company that builds heavy-duty security fences for airports and the military, says chain-link fences topped with barbed wire have been the traditional standard for airport security.
The trouble, he said, is this: A trespasser with wire cutters can get through most chain-link fences in about 20 seconds.
Metalco makes a welded heavy duty fence that he says is much harder to cut through.
"You can't cut your way through without making a major racket," Schiller said.
The nation's water plants tend to have better security than airports, Schiller said. One possible reason: The perimeters of water plants are far smaller, and therefore easier to protect.
At large airports like Charlotte's, installing new security equipment can be costly. But some airports have found it worthwhile to invest in sturdier barriers.
At Boston's Logan Airport, which was breached internally by terrorists on 9-11, officials in recent years replaced a chain-link perimeter fence with a 10-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire.
The change followed a number of security violations at Logan in the late 1990s. In one case, a teenager was able to climb over a security fence, get through a jetway door that should have been locked, and find an empty seat on a 747 headed to London.
The federal government requires airports to prevent and detect unauthorized access to their airfields, but doesn't tell them how high - or how sturdy - to build their fences. In interviews with the Observer, the TSA and FAA both said the other agency was primarily responsible for fencing standards.
The FAA recommends that airports in areas with deer build a 10-foot chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. The FAA said such a fence is the "most effective for keeping deer and other wildlife off an airport," and also "greatly increases airport security."
Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesperson, said that when it comes to protecting airports against people, "applicable TSA standards would take precedence."
When asked by the Observer about fencing standards, the TSA said in an e-mail that the newspaper should contact the FAA for questions about fencing.
Orr: We protect perimeter
Airports shouldn't rely on fencing alone, experts say.
Some U.S. airports - such as Miami's - have turned to high-tech tools such as radar to detect trespassers near security fences. Others have invested in "smart" video cameras that can detect human trespassers, even at night.
In drives around Charlotte/Douglas, Observer reporters saw few signs of video cameras near the perimeter fence.
But Orr told the airport's advisory committee in 2009 that the facility has about 300 cameras, "and they are pretty much everywhere," according to the committee's minutes.
Orr told the Observer the airport spends "a great deal of money and effort" to keep unauthorized people off its airfield. "Everybody here at the airport is part of the program," he said.
But he declined to talk about what his airport does - or how much it spends - to protect its perimeter, saying he does not want to compromise security.
"For security to work, I need to know what I'm doing and you need to know as little about it as possible," he said. "...It's the unmentionable."