Teen stowaway prompts review of airport security

Cameras at Mineta San Jose Airport captured 15-year-old Bay Area boy before he climbed onto Hawaiian Airlines jet.
April 21, 2014 12:00:00 AM PDT
It's like a story from Hollywood, only harder to believe. Could a kid really survive for hours in the wheel well of a commercial jet flying all the way from San Jose to Hawaii? And how could he slip past security so easily?

All that stood between the Santa Clara teenager and a Hawaii-bound aircraft was a six-foot high fence and a camera surveillance system that captured an intruder near the plane but didn't send out an alert.

The 15-year-old survived oxygen deprivation at 38,000 feet and air temperatures of 50 degrees below zero. Maui airport employees were stunned when he dropped from the wheel well.

"On the arrival, one of our workers out on the apron did see the juvenile come out of the wheel well and walk towards the front of the aircraft," said Maui airport Director Marvin Moniz.

Jeffrey Bass took us inside the landing gear of a large aircraft at Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. It was a very tight squeeze for the stowaway.

Reporter: "How much room is there in an airline wheel well?"
Bass: "You could probably fit an upright grand piano into the wheel well of a 767. But once the gear is stowed up there, retracted after landing, there's not much room at all. When the landing gear, you know, comes back out and the doors open, he might just fall right out."

The floors of most airline cabins are very thin, mostly made of aluminum. But even if that teenager was crying out for help, chances are passengers likely couldn't hear him over the noise of the jet engines.

"At 38,000 feet in an airplane, half the earth's atmosphere is below you," Bass said. "So it's very thin, higher than Mount Everest. And people who climb it usually use oxygen tanks."

So how did the teenager survive?

We asked Dr. Michael Bresler, who says the stowaway teen is the talk of the ER at Mills Peninsula Hospital in Burlingame.

"I suspect because he had a healthy brain and a healthy heart he was able to survive," Dr. Bresler said.

The wheel well of a commercial aircraft is a hostile place at high altitudes. Little oxygen and below freezing temperatures.

"The brain, heart, and vital organs don't need as much oxygen when the temperature goes down so much," Dr. Bresler said. "So he was sort of in a state of suspended animation."

The teen blacked out and says he doesn't remember the terrifying trip.

In light of this incident, a critical eye has been cast at perimeter security at Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Six miles of chain link fence, much of it only six feet high with barbed wire at the top, didn't stop the teen. The airport maintains it meets or exceeds all federal safety standards.

"Our perimeter fencing is certainly one of those components, as is video surveillance cameras and the thousands of people who work at the airport that who are all trained to be alert to any security related situations here," said airport spokesperson Rosemary Barnes.

You can spot security cameras here and there, but they don't appear to cover the entire perimeter. Even then, who's watching the video? The airport says it has video of a person approaching the Hawaiian Airlines plane in near darkness, but that didn't trigger an alert to stop the intruder.

"It's my understanding we reviewed that footage after that fact, after we were alerted to the situation," Barnes said.

That was hours later when the teenager was discovered in Maui.

Perimeter security is a joint responsibility by the airport and San Jose police. John Sammon, a top TSA administrator, told a congressional subcommittee in 2011 that its inspectors "determine whether airport operators are complying with all aspects of TSA regulations." They also "test for compliance regarding access control and perimeter integrity requirements." Civil penalties can be imposed for violations.

However, skeptics wonder if the six-foot fence is a deterrent.

"Pretty easy," said an airport visitor named Ken. "Just throw a jacket or some kind of clothing or something over the top of the barbed wire and hop on over. Pretty easy. A kid can do it."

One Bay Area lawmaker is calling for better security.

Congressman Eric Swalwell, D-Hayward, tweeted Monday, "I have long been concerned about security at our airport perimeters. #Stowaway teen demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed."


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