Sen. Boxer questions TSA on security lapse after airplane stowaway

Greg Nash

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is pressing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to explain an airport security lapse that allowed a teenaged stowaway to fly from San Jose to Hawaii last month. 

The incident involved a 15-year-old boy from California who hid in the landing gear of a Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 airplane that was departing from San Jose. He was discovered when the plane landed in Hawaii, having survived a loss of oxygen and temperature drop that are usually fatal at commercial airplane altitudes. 

Boxer said in a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole that the stowaway incident revealed flaws in the agency’s airport perimeter security. 

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“I was shocked to find out that your agency had completed a three-month-long inspection and found San Jose International Airport to be in full compliance with the TSA-approved Airport Security plan only three weeks before a 15-year-old boy was able to breach the airport perimeter fence and climb undetected into the wheel well of a parked aircraft,” she wrote. 

“While we know that there is not one perfect solution when it comes to keeping our airports safe, it's also clear that a layered defense is critical to preventing such breaches from happening again,” Boxer continued.

“What truly concerned me in this situation was that the Airport Security Plan for San Jose Airport did not require a layered defense in keeping the perimeter fence area safe from unlawful access,” she added. 

Boxer’s letter follows a discussion the California Democrat had with Pistole during a Senate hearing earlier this month. 

Pistole defended the agency from Boxer’s criticism in the hearing by responding that it was not possible to ensure that airports would never be vulnerable to security lapses. 

“I would like to draw a distinction between what our regulatory compliance work is to say they have the systems in place,” he said. “The question is, do they work at every instance? And there is no 100 percent solution here, senator, as you know, so we can build fortresses around airports for access."

Boxer said in her letter this week that the TSA could use new technologies to enhance airport perimeter security and downplayed concerns about costs.

“During the hearing, you mentioned the costs associated with increasing layered security at airports,” she wrote. “When it comes to aviation security, I think we all agree these improvements are worthy investments, and an airport in my state, Palm Springs International, has shown that the costs do not have to be prohibitive.”

Boxer said the Palm Springs Airport installed a radar system and increased its use of closed-circuit television cameras to help keep their perimeter fences secure for less than $3 million. 

She said other airports should follow the Palm Springs example. 

“The multi-level layered approach to security that is in place at Palm Springs International Airport includes just one example of the types of technologies that exist today and are ready to be deployed at airports around the country,” Boxer wrote. 

“What is TSA doing to validate and incorporate new security technologies in airport defense?” the letter continued.

“In light of the breach at San Jose, which served as a major wake-up call, do you believe that the current standards in Airport Security Plans are in need of an update? If so, is TSA currently taking steps to improve Airport Security Plans, and what are those steps?” Boxer asked.