LOS ANGELES (AP) — The teenage stowaway who flew in the wheel well of a jet from San Jose to Hawaii last spring is far from the only person who got past the security fences that protect California’s busiest airports.
There have been at least 82 incidents in which people reached the airfields of the international airports serving San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Diego between January 2004 and January 2015, according to an Associated Press investigation.
Nationally, there have been at least 268 perimeter security breaches at 31 major U.S. airports, AP found. Some involved fence-jumpers taking shortcuts or looking to hop flights, others intoxicated drivers crashing through barriers. None was deemed terrorism-related.
Airports say breaches are relatively rare. Security measures typically include fences, surveillance cameras and patrols, but there are gaps. Not all of the miles of fences are routinely patrolled or covered by video surveillance.
San Francisco International had the most breaches in the analysis, with 37; Los Angeles International ranked third nationally, with 24; San Jose was fifth with 18; San Diego reported three.
At a news conference called Thursday in response to AP’s findings, the San Francisco airport spokesman said his facility had the most breaches because it disclosed everything, whether the breach was intentional or accidental. Spokesman Doug Yakel said the airport has beefed up security and that while its airfield is safe, “The goal is always zero” breaches.
Security upgrades have included more patrols, better lighting and the installation of cameras that can detect body heat at night.
“Perimeter security is very important to our airport. We take this obligation very seriously. We’re very focused on learning from every single incident. That’s why no matter how innocuous or inadvertent a perimeter has been, we’ve taken action,” Yakel said.
Yakel also revealed new details about breaches at his airport — in the records that San Francisco International provided to AP under records act requests, many details were deleted by federal officials who reviewed the documents for sensitive security concerns.
In two of the incidents, people made it onto jets at the airport. About half of the incidents involved homeless or transients. A handful involved boaters in distress or windsurfers who veered too close to the airport’s waterfront perimeter.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said that since the San Jose stowaway last April, she’s been asking the Transportation Security Administration and airport officials to “work together and resolve this alarming situation,” adding, “Enough is enough, let’s get it done.”
While Yahya Abdi — the boy who last April survived the Maui flight — may be California’s most famous airport intruder, he is not the most prolific.
Eight times between April 2012 and March 2013, a mentally ill homeless man named Christopher McGrath got over the chain links that separate the public from the planes at Los Angeles International. Once he hid for hours before being discovered.
Twice he reached the stairs leading to a jet parked at a terminal — his goal to persuade pilots to give him a ride to Australia, New Zealand or Hawaii, where he wanted to start a new life.
“I’d suggest LAX do a better job with putting up security fences,” McGrath wrote in an email from federal prison, where he is being treated after a judge found him not guilty by reason of insanity on federal charges.
LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon said McGrath was helpful in the sense he exposed vulnerabilities that the airport has since fixed.
“He went over barbed wire that if you and I tried to get over, you’d be sliced and diced. But for some reason or another in his state, he was able to get over,” Gannon said. “He seemed to be like a cat, he could fall and land on his feet and not be injured.”
On Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti publicly revealed that LAX officials have been looking into an electronic “perimeter intrusion detection system” to try along the fence line at LAX that has seen the most breaches.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we’re in the top three given that we’re the second-busiest airport in the United States, but that’s disturbing to see,” Garcetti said in his regular his “Ask the Mayor” segment on KNX-AM radio. “All it takes is one person who can get through and do something.”
Garcetti’s office said that over the next year, LAX will begin testing the new system at a cost of about $1.5 million.
In an interview Thursday, Gannon said plenty of vendors who might build the system have pitched him. He has expressed concerns that, based on conversations with police chiefs at other airports nationally, the system might create a lot of false alarms and be more of a distraction than a solution.
“I want to examine the technology that’s out there and make sure it works, because nothing’s cheap,” he said.