Revamping Aviation Security: Think Outside of the Terminal

In a previous critical opinion on the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) implementation of new profiling guidelines in response to the Christmas Day terrorist attempt, I pointed to the inconsistent governance criteria applied in compiling their watch list of countries and proposed a shift in focus away from nationality profiling. Instead, I suggested a multi-pronged strategy that might prove both more efficient and effective in detecting and deterring terrorist threats. The strategy would entail increased and earlier focus on the person (rather than mere belongings), emphasizing scrutiny of visa applications and review of passports, expert observation of behavior, and effective use of a well-integrated background database of high-risk individuals.

Recent events have also made clear the necessity of explicitly focusing on what I had left out as the obvious: aviation safety is essential outside of the airport terminal as well. Closely guarding of entry and movements on the airport tarmac, and the comings and goings around idle aircraft is also fundamental. The freezing death of a stowaway during last weekend’s Delta flight from New York’s JFK airport to Tokyo’s Narita is a rude reminder that we cannot take the obvious for granted, and that aviation security remains flawed at a very basic level.

If today a person can still slip undetected both onto the tarmac of a major airport and then slip into the landing gear compartment of a U.S. airliner undetected, aviation security definitely deserves a deeper and more serious review – over and above that which has been suggested in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt.

Last Sunday, February 7th, a maintenance worker at Narita airport in Japan found the body of a dead stowaway in the landing gear compartment of the Delta Boeing 777 aircraft. Intriguingly, even though four full days have since elapsed, details of the man’s identity, point of origin, and possible security lapses have yet to emerge publicly. In addition, the media coverage was very modest at first and then disappeared altogether, in spite of the dire safety implications of this incident. 

Even with little information at this stage, it is unlikely that the apparent stowaway was a tarmac employee at JFK since he would have known that his action would result in almost certain death. It thus appears that there was a double security breach – first entering and wandering into the tarmac itself and then slipping into the landing gear bay of the aircraft. Both breaches are troublesome. The landing gear, while unpressurized, is sizable and can hold an adult and/or lethal explosives.  

Inside the airport terminal, TSA personnel screened every child and grandmother for even the tinniest tubes of toothpaste. Yet, an adult could have easily slip undetected onto the tarmac and aircraft with a bomb, which fortunately was not the case here.

In attempts to lessen the relevance of this event, some may point out that every so many years a dead stowaway is found in some exposed bay of an airplane. However, in today’s security theater, where terrorist innovation cannot be underestimated, such rationale is feeble and reckless. This is particularly so for U.S. airliners, which are serious potential targets for terrorists.  

Other apologists may try to suggest that the same Delta aircraft may have traveled from other countries (possibly Africa) over the days prior to landing at JFK (before flying to Tokyo), and that the stowaway may have originated abroad (in an African airport instead, implying that the stowaway would have been dead in that compartment for many days?).  

But even then the case for an aviation security revamp in the U.S. would still be compelling. Under such circumstances, there would have been a monitoring and security failure prior to the flight’s departure to New York’s JFK airport, along with a failure at the JFK airport to detect a stowaway while the aircraft sat on the tarmac. In fact, a security inspection of any aircraft about to travel on an international route is supposed to take place a couple of hours before departure, which makes it more likely that the stowaway may have slipped into the aircraft hold at JFK.

Thus, far much silence and mystery has surrounded the circumstances of this case. But in light of previous serious mishaps, a scrupulous investigation into this incident should take place, and the government investigative and regulatory agencies ought to be fully transparent with the public as to what actually took place. The investigation into this incident ought to be complemented by a review into a possible broader systemic security failure and the need for a broader aviation safety revamp than originally envisaged in the aftermath of the Christmas Day would-be-bomber mishap.  

In sum, this latest stowaway incident, while tragic for only one man who did not seem to have any terrorist intention, does further the case for a revamp of the U.S. approach to aviation security. For starters, there is a need to “think outside of the terminal” as well as outside of the box regarding the conventional approach to TSA security within airport terminals. And in moving outside of the “terminal-only” mind frame, U.S. aviation security in collaboration with other countries ought to review tarmac security wherever U.S. airliners fly and revisit how airliners are monitored and secured.