Our View: U.S. airport security called into question by teen stowaway

04/22/2014 6:27 PM

04/22/2014 6:28 PM

It was both sad and disturbing that a 15-year-old runaway boy jumped a fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport and burrowed his way into a Hawaiian Air Boeing 767 wheel well.

The boy survived a 5½ hour flight to Maui’s Kahului Airport, during most of which he was apparently unconscious.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, only 18 of the 89 people known to have pulled this stunt have survived. So we are grateful the boy didn’t pay for his mistake with his life. What caused him to try something so incredibly dangerous? Most have assumed he was just trying to hitch a ride to Hawaii, the land of pineapple and volcanoes. But CNN reported Tuesday that he was desperate to see his mother, who is in Somalia; he was trying to get home.

Experts say he survived because his body likely went into a “hibernative” state as airborne temperatures fell to 50 below zero at 38,000 feet. He was lucky.

But in one sense, so are the 212 passengers and 10 crew members also onboard. If the young man had been carrying a bomb, he could have doomed the plane. In fact, someone looking to do harm wouldn’t even needed to stow away on the plane. After jumping the airport fence, they could have planted the bomb and disappeared back into the night. How does something like this happen in a post-9/11 world? More precisely, how does it continue to occur even after the FAA pointed out in a 2011 report that previous stowaways demonstrated “a weakness in airport security”?

Most Americans know the drill of going through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. It’s tedious at best and demeaning at worst as you remove your shoes, your belt, throw your wallet and change, your laptop and your carry-on into plastic bins and then chase them along the conveyor belts in your stockings. And you wonder what the person behind the full-body imaging machine is staring at as you stand there, arms stretched like a scarecrow.

Yes, TSA finds all our 6-ounce bottles of sunscreen, our nail clippers, our pocketknives. But they somehow missed a teenage boy.

We put up with the airport indignities because we know it’s for our own protection. So is making certain that no one is hopping over a camera-monitored security perimeter. In an environment in which an elderly woman can be forced to surrender her dental adhesive in the name of security, the federal government should be able to protect the airplanes.

Rep. Eric Stalwell, D-Dublin, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, noted this sort of thing “demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.” Nice use of understatement.

Federal officials should review the entire TSA system, as well as airport perimeter security. Private pilots check every aspect of their planes before takeoff; commercial pilots know the drill and should be just as concerned. Security personnel should be looking into wheel wells immediately prior to takeoff. After all, it’s been tried at least 89 times in the past. After doing all this, they can demand that we give up our 6-ounce bottles of hand lotion.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service