Airport security: one out of four ain’t bad?

puzzled
In October 2012, the jet-ski that Daniel Casillo was riding out on Jamaica Bay broke down, so he swam three miles to shore, then tramped through the muddy marshland surrounding JFK airport in New York. Unable to find anyone to help him, he ultimately did what he had to do: scale the 8-foot airport fence in an effort to get caught.

As he told Good Morning America, “I just made the decision: I’m going to have to get found. I’m going to take it upon myself to get over this fence to get seen. Something has to happen.”

Foolish citizen. It turns out that getting caught at an airport is a lot harder than you might think. Casillo had to cross the tarmac and eventually enter the terminal before he could find help.

After that embarrassment, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey “took immediate action following the incident to increase not only Port Authority police patrols, but also increase our civilian patrols of the airport perimeter. Those patrols are 24/7 at all four airports.”

How’s that working out?

Well, last week, on Christmas Day, the same $300 million “smart fence” that Raytheon installed at JFK was breached at Newark-Liberty International. This time the trespasser was a 24-year-old cross-dresser who apparently got spooked by the man in whose car he had had a tryst. Jersey City resident Siyah Bryant was so spooked, in fact, that he abandoned his “date” and an out-of-gas car along the New Jersey Turnpike and scaled the fence on the airport property.

According to the Port Authority, the Perimeter Intrusion Detection System (PIDS) worked just fine, sounding an alarm and even capturing video of Bryant as he climbed the fence in what the New York Post described as “women’s red pants and a smart brown sweater.” Unfortunately, by the time officials located him, the très chic trespasser had walked a mile through a high-security area, crossed two runways, and was trying to enter the terminal building. It was a United Airlines employee, not police, who finally detained him.

In a third incident, also on Christmas Day, police in Phoenix arrested 49-year-old Robert Bump after he scaled the fence at Sky Harbor airport and, apparently as a drunken folly, crossed a taxiway and tarmac to “slap” a Southwest Airlines plane.

Meanwhile, back at JFK, the PIDS system did function properly a few days before Christmas when an emotionally disturbed Wisconsin man (Makhonjwa Mashoba, 31, of Milwaukee) allegedly hopped the fence and managed to cover only a half-mile of airport ground before police picked him up. “This is the first time the system came close to working as advertised,” said Paul Nunziato, the president of the Port Authority police union.

To recap: in the past 14 months a man in a bright yellow life vest who wanted to be found, a drag queen in red pants who was also looking for help, and a drunken plane-slapper all climbed fences around some of the nation’s busiest airports and wandered through the secure area. An emotionally unstable fourth person was captured relatively quickly, but one wonders how police would have fared against non-tippling terrorists in camo who weren’t trying to be caught.

Anyone who cares about airport security should be concerned about a 25% success rate. While the TSA has bolted, padlocked, and reinforced the front door to the nation’s air travel, the back door and a few windows seem to have been left wide open.

Given that a 9/11-style skyjacking would now fail because cockpit doors have been secured, and because 800-million annual fliers are prepared to tackle a terrorist inside the cabin, one wonders if the 50,000+ brave employees of the TSA might be more useful out on patrols around the airport perimeter.

Back when the $300 million PIDS system was only estimated to have cost $100 million, I did some quick math and concluded that the same money could fund a dog and handler every 300 feet around the perimeter of the four New York airports. Even the Port Authority would have a hard time missing a pack of hounds in pursuit of a tipsy, jetskiing, red-legged cross-dresser in a neon-yellow life jacket out on the field.

Perhaps most importantly, these incidents show once again that there is not a terrorist behind every lamppost. Presumably, if there were, madmen in reindeer garb would long ago have begun hopping fences and pouring sugar into the gas tanks of the nation’s jet fleet.

Add these four anecdotes to the raft of evidence proving that the TSA’s ongoing search of America’s pants is not only unproductive, it’s unnecessary.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Excellent article, Phil ! I wonder if cross-dressing is one of the secret criteria to keep well-funded travelers from secret approval in the secret PreCheck decision making?

  • Chris Bray

    Please, please, please let us never speak, mumble, whisper, or vaguely think the thought that the TSA should work on securing this figurative “back door and a few windows” at the airport. Imagine the towering stupidity of TSA patrols, or TSA rapid response teams, or TSA anything-other-than-diddling-with-grandma’s-underwear. Remember this golden oldie? Let’s for crying out loud keep the Thousands Standing Around at their airport checkpoints, performing their empty gestures, and leave it to the local police to fuck up the security of the rest of the airport.

  • Susan J. Barretta

    What a great laugh with which to start New Year’s. 🙂

  • marlee s

    I love your summary…I’m laughing (crying?) into the
    new year…oyvey!

  • Amy Alkon

    “the 50,000+ brave employees of the TSA might be more useful out on patrols around the airport perimeter.” — Great point. Of course, providing actual security rather than pretend security would be far less showy.

  • There’s a guy at the Washington Post who does an excellent job with data — Dylan Matthews — at the “WonkBlog.” If I can work up the energy, I’ll do a post on it. He does what you do here, Phil, which is use facts to support an argument (while also employing humor!):

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/30/i-flew-on-a-plane-without-going-through-security-it-was-amazing-and-no-one-died/

    But as I wrote in comments over there, it’s pointless. Too many people like their fear and they like to lick the authoritarian boot. I’m exhausted from presenting facts to a nation of willful knuckleheads.