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Hartsfield-Jackson near bottom of list for number of security breaches
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Hartsfield-Jackson near bottom of list for number of security breaches

Hartsfield-Jackson near bottom of list for number of security breaches
Photo Credit: Brant Sanderlin/AJC
ATL is the world's busiest airport, with more than 96 million passengers coming through Hartsfield-Jackson in 2014.  (Brant Sanderlin bsanderlin@ajc.com.)

Hartsfield-Jackson near bottom of list for number of security breaches

Over the past decade, a hitchhiker and an assault suspect are among those who have skirted the security on the perimeter of Atlanta's airport.

An Associated Press investigation finds that nationwide, there have been at least 268 breaches of airport perimeter security at the nation's largest airports, which account for 75% of the country's commercial air traffic.  None of the breaches was terrorism-related.  They involved people who hopped fences, crashed through gates, or bypassed other outer measures.  Most involved intruders who wanted to take a shortcut, were lost, disoriented, drunk or mentally unstable but seemingly harmless.

Hartsfield-Jackson was one of about two dozen airports which fully disclosed all incidents between January 2004-January 2015.  Some reported only partial numbers.  Four, including Boston Logan and the three major airports around New York, declined to provide any numbers for the report.

In Atlanta, there have been a total of five perimeter breaches over the last decade.  Those numbers were near the bottom of the list.  Three of those breaches were by men who made it onto runways.

"While we've had fewer security breaches than other airports in the U. S., I would say that one breach is one too many," said Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport spokesman Reese McCranie.  "That's why we spend every single day working very diligently across multiple federal and local law enforcement agencies to make sure that we have the safest airport possible in the world.  Not only do we want to be the world's busiest airport, we want to be the world's safest."

McCranie, who says that ATL believed it was important to be transparent by releasing its numbers for the investigation, has made recent upgrades to its own security, both around the perimeter and around the terminal, both visible and more subtle.

"We've increased our multi-layered approach to security in the last several months," he said.  "We've increased patrols, we've increased our police presence, and we've also increased our K-9 and dog-sniffing units, as well." 

ATL is the world's busiest airport, with more than 96 million passengers coming through Hartsfield-Jackson in 2014.  Chicago's O'Hare, which tops Atlanta in total flights by some 13,000--but not in passenger volume--also had five breaches listed in the AP report.

Former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker said a key question involves how quickly airport security caught the intruders.

"If this was within a moment or two or three, that's pretty good," he said.  "If these people got to places like up near the jets or onto the runways, that's not good at all." 

The longest-lasting security breach at Atlanta's perimeter was over with an arrest within eight minutes.  That one was in 2007, when "a man police were pursuing in connection with an aggravated assault climbed over a security fence.  A pilot said he came within 50 feet of a plane that had landed."

At Los Angeles International, a mentally-ill man hopped the perimeter fence eight times in less than a year--twice reaching stairs that led to jets.  Chicago O'Hare and Ft. Lauderdale were among the airports which had suspects breach fences as they ran from cops.  In Philadelphia, two party-goers drove through a gate to ask an officer for directions.  Another Philadelphia instance involved a man who rammed his SUV through a gate and sped onto a runway as a plane was about to land, causing air traffic controllers to hold takeoffs and landings for about 30 minutes.

Other Atlanta incidents:  in April 2014, a guard saw a man walk onto the airport property after going over a security gate, and a pilot reported seeing him on a runway.  He was caught running near planes.  In June 2013, a man hitchhiking to see his sister in Florida got into a secure area while trying to reach another road. After questioning him, authorities dropped the man outside the airport so he could continue his journey.  In November of 2012, a man who had only a cell phone and $3.50 in his pockets dashed past a guard in a cargo area and out and across two runways before being caught.  He said he needed to catch a flight to Detroit, but had no ticket.

One breach, though it did have security implications, turned out to be fairly innocuous.  An Atlanta airport worker meeting their spouse at lunchtime had the spouse throw the lunch over a fence.

The Associated Press reports that seven airports in four states accounted for more than half of the breaches. San Francisco International reported 37. Philadelphia International: 25. Los Angeles International: 24. McCarran International in Las Vegas: 21 (though its records check went only to the start of 2009.) Mineta San Jose International: 18. Miami International: 14. And Tampa International: 13.

Atlanta puts increased focus on its perimeter security, says McCranie, who adds that while he would not presume to speak for other airports, some--like San Francisco, which tops the list--may have other challenges because they are near the water.  

For example, in 2008, a Potomac River boater's battery failed, so he paddled to shore and jumped fencing at Washington's Reagan National to go through a secure area and reach his vehicle to charge the battery. He went back over the fencing and reinstalled the battery.

"There's not a one-size-fits-all approach to perimeter security at airports," said McCranie.  "It's certainly a challenge for all of us, but we try every day to continually ensure that we're being safe and secure."

Security has also been increased inside Atlanta's airport, too, since that Delta worker's gun-running was uncovered in recent months.  McCranie says that now, employees coming to work go through mandatory security screenings.  Select flight crew members have a special line they travel when headed to secure areas.

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