Oct. 5--A breach of security last month at Palm Springs International Airport could happen again despite millions of dollars pouring in for security for the nation's airports.
On Sept. 18, Michael Broderick drove a pickup truck through Palm Springs International Airport's chain-link fence behind the rental-car area that led to the runway. The 39-year-old suspect spent 14 minutes confronting taxiing airplanes and police officers on the tarmac before being chased off the property, only to be arrested later.
The incident raised questions about the strength of the airport's security.
Airport officials say their fence already meets Transportation Security Administration guidelines and doesn't need to be upgraded. Other airports, though, like Ontario International, Los Angeles International and Phoenix-Sky Harbor, are adding concrete barriers to their perimeters, more than what the TSA demands.
"You can't address everything and anything that might happen," said Bryant Francis, Palm Springs International Airport's deputy director of aviation.
Still, Palm Springs International has invested heavily in security. Last year it finished a $15 million security checkpoint where officials can check vehicles before they reach the airport terminal.
But the checkpoint is only staffed during orange and red alerts issued by the Department of Homeland Security and it only protects the terminal, not the rest of the airport's perimeter.
Airports rely on chain-link fences to keep intruders and large animals off the runway. They typically don't use concrete walls for fear a plane might run into them.
"You've got this dichotomy," said Professor Michael Poley, with the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. Sometimes stringent security precautions are for naught, he said.
"A determined enemy can get to most places," Poley said. Chain-link fences are the most economical and the most widely used, he said.
"There's a finite amount of money we can spend," said Poley, a former airfield manager for Vance Air Force Base and the associate professor for the safety science department.
An unauthorized person barreling into the airport should also be a high financial priority, said Robert Poole, a former adviser to the White House Domestic Policy Council on airport security following 9 /11, and the founder of the conservative Los Angeles-based think tank the Reason Foundation, which researches transportation and security issues.
"That's another way to try to get a bomb on the plane, sabotage the plane, or sneak into the terminal and create havoc," Poole said in a telephone interview. "It certainly looks like a big point of vulnerability."
Ontario International Airport expects to spend $11.4 million to secure its perimeter, and LAX budgeted $11.7 million. The federal government has pledged to pay for the majority of both airports' upgrade costs.
The FAA and the Transportation Security Administration's standards for fences vary depending on each airport and are generally regarded as recommendations, not requirements, said a spokeswoman with the FAA.
Federal regulations for airports mention fences as well as "safeguards to prevent inadvertent entry to the movement area by unauthorized persons or vehicles."
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said a 6-foot-tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and a concrete base, like the one at the Palm Springs airport, is usually encouraged.
"Even if it was taller, it wouldn't prevent a car from barreling through it," Melendez said.
"The security of the perimeter does not begin and end with the fencing," said Melendez.
Still, other airports like LAX and Phoenix-Sky Harbor are spending $11.7 million and $16 million, respectively, to bolster their fences with concrete cement barriers to further prevent anyone from driving onto the airfield.
Sky Harbor stepped up its security-fence upgrades after a man, fleeing police, rammed his pickup truck through a wrought-iron fence and reached the runway in June.
A new perimeter fence and other security enhancements have been on the table at ONT since 2002, when Los Angeles World Airports received a $4.5 million federal grant for the project.
Sky Harbor International Airport is prepared to spend up to $15 million on surveillance equipment designed to detect terrorists or other criminals lurking around the airport's edges.
Massachusetts Port Authority officials plan a $14.5 million upgrade of security at Logan, including the construction of a 10-foot concrete wall.
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