Taking Responsibility for Air Side Security

At 9:00 pm on a Saturday night, a major international airport in the northeast can be a very busy place with overnight flights departing on international and transcontinental routes and arriving flights continuing to land from across America and abroad. It is a time when the ramp is busy with the loading of aircraft baggage and provisions and the off-loading of arriving passengers, more baggage and cargo to name just some of the activities taking place on the bustling ramps. Vehicular traffic can also be heavy on the roadways and across runways at that time with meal service vehicles from the commissaries and service vehicles fueling and carrying checked baggage moving in every direction. A difficult time to maintain tight security against a terrorist act as was made evident on November 12th when a Chevrolet SUV by- passed security at an entrance gate, entered an active roadway and disappeared into the night. For forty-five minutes neither the private security personnel manning the gate nor the Port Authority Police at Newark’s Liberty International Airport knew who had entered, for what purpose and where the vehicle had gone.

More than four years after 9/11 how is it possible for such an event to occur at one of the busiest airports in America, and one from which one of the fateful airliners had departed with terrorists on board in 2001, one might ask. To add to the mystery is the fact that all of this occurred without the TSA, the federal agency charged with overall security at all of America’s airports, knowing about it for some thirteen hours. For those who follow the events taking place in the world of virtual aviation security, this event and others like it, though shocking when they occur, are a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the failure of DHS, TSA, and local law enforcement around the nation to learn to cooperate with one another and plug the dangerous holes in security that continue to plague commercial air traffic.

With an unauthorized vehicle large enough to be carrying hundreds of pounds of explosives or enough terrorists to cause multiple deadly events in different parts of the airport lost on the tarmac, in the dark, without police and without the federal agency with overall decision making authority even aware, operations continued throughout with passengers, airport personnel and commercial airliners going about their business as though nothing unusual was afoot.

Clearly there was a failure to communicate between the local law enforcement agency, the New York/New Jersey Port Authority Police and the federal Transportation Security Administration on the security issue. Surely with the safety of thousands of passengers, flight crews and others at risk, the FAA should have had a role to play in deciding whether to divert incoming aircraft and the shutting down of operations. And Department of Homeland Security, where the buck stops, should have been alerted to the mess its member agencies were in, especially since it occurred in the backyard of its new Secretary, the former United States Attorney for Newark.

Perhaps none of the cooperation between and among agencies needed to efficiently deal with an incident like this was forthcoming because of territorial infighting between law enforcement agencies. Maybe it was the result of TSA’s failing to maintain a presence on the airside of our airports. It is also possible, even likely, the breach or will be shifted onto the security guard company manning the gate through which the vehicle passed. But however the matter is concluded, the fact that a purportedly intoxicated driver was able to commit what was potentially the most serious breach of aviation security since 9/11 should serve as a warning to those who would like to believe that security is better at the airport these days; in fact it remains in a condition “Red.”

Share this post: