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15-year-old stowaway stirs airport security concerns

By Martha Mendoza & Oskar Garcia

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 03:15 p.m. HST, Apr 21, 2014

SAN JOSE, Calif. »  A 15-year-old boy found his way onto an airport's tarmac and climbed into a jetliner's wheel well, then flew for five freezing hours to Hawaii -- a misadventure that forced authorities to take a hard look at the security system that protects the nation's airline fleet.

The boy, who lives in Santa Clara, Calif., hopped out of the left rear wheel well of a Boeing 767 on the Maui airport tarmac Sunday, according to the FBI. Authorities found the high school student wandering the airport grounds with no identification. He was questioned by the FBI and taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was found to be unharmed.

FBI spokesman Tom Simon in Honolulu said the teen climbed into the left rear wheel well of the first plane he saw in San Jose.

"He got very lucky that he got to go to Maui but he was not targeting Maui as a destination," Simon said.

He passed out in the air and didn't regain consciousness until an hour after the plane landed in Hawaii, Simon said. When he came to, he climbed out of the wheel well and was immediately seen by airport personnel who escorted him inside where he was interviewed by the FBI, Simon said.

It was not immediately clear how the boy stayed alive in the unpressurized space, where temperatures at cruising altitude can fall well below zero and the air is too thin for humans to stay conscious. An FAA study of stowaways found that some survive by going into a hibernation-like state.

On Monday, authorities tried to determine how the boy slipped through multiple layers of security, including wide-ranging video surveillance, German shepherds and Segway-riding police officers.

San Jose International Airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes says airport employees monitor security video feeds from throughout the 1,050-acre airport around the clock. However, she said no one noticed images of an unidentified person walking on the airport ramp and approaching Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 in the dark until security agents reviewed the footage after the plane had landed in Hawaii and the boy had been found.

The airport, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is surrounded by fences, although some sections do not have barbed wire and could easily be scaled.

The boy found his way onto the tarmac during the night, "under the cover of darkness," Barnes said.

Hours later, surveillance video at Kahului Airport showed the boy getting out of the wheel well after landing, according to a statement from Hawaii's Department of Transportation. The video was not released because of the ongoing investigation.

Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Alison Croyle said airline personnel noticed the boy on the ramp after the flight arrived and immediately notified airport security.

"Our primary concern now is for the well-being of the boy, who is exceptionally lucky to have survived," Croyle said.

Isaac Yeffet, a former head of security for the Israeli airline El Al who now runs his own firm, Yeffet Security Consultants, said the breach shows that U.S. airport security still has weaknesses, despite billions of dollars invested.

"Shame on us for doing such a terrible job," he said. "Perimeters are not well protected. We see it again and again."

A congressman who serves on the Homeland Security committee wondered how the teen could have sneaked onto the airfield unnoticed.

"I have long been concerned about security at our airport perimeters. #Stowaway teen demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed," tweeted Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who represents the San Francisco Bay Area's eastern cities and suburbs.

Unlike checkpoint security inside the airport, which is overseen by the Transportation Security Administration, airport perimeters are policed by local authorities, as well as federal law enforcement.

Airport police were working with the FBI and the TSA to review security.

The boy was released to child-protective services in Hawaii and not charged with a crime, Simon said.

The city of San Jose, which owns and operates the California airport, is not planning on pursuing criminal charges against the teen based on the current information available.

The FAA says 105 stowaways have sneaked aboard 94 flights worldwide since 1947, and about 1 out of 4 survived. But agency studies say the actual numbers are probably higher, as some survivors may have escaped unnoticed, and bodies could fall into the ocean undetected.

In August, a 13- or 14-year-old boy in Nigeria survived a 35-minute trip in the wheel well of a domestic flight after stowing away. Authorities credited the flight's short duration and its altitude of about 25,000 feet. Others who hid in wheel wells have died, including a 16-year-old killed aboard a flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Boston in 2010 and a man who fell onto a suburban London street as a flight from Angola began its descent in 2012.

An FAA review of high-altitude wheel well survivors said they typically clamber past the main landing gear into a wing recess area next to where the gear retracts. On some aircraft, that space is large enough for two small adults.

The FAA found that all wheel-well stowaways will lose consciousness at high altitude from lack of oxygen, and that their freezing bodies go into a state somewhat similar to hibernation. At 38,000 feet — the cruising altitude of the Hawaiian Airlines flight — the outside air temperature is about minus 85 degrees. That would usually be deadly, but some people survive because their breathing, heart rate and brain activity slow down.


Garcia reported from Honolulu.


Associated Press writers Justin Pritchard and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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environmental_lady wrote:
This lapse of security is inexcusable. So a video camera showed the boy climbing the fence. How is that no alarm bells rang at airport's security? How is that the plane monitoring system didn't notice a human body in the wheel well? This serious lapse may inspire suicide bombers to blow up planes.
on April 21,2014 | 09:04AM
HealthyandHappy wrote:
Crisis = Money. The more inept you are the more money you can ask for. It is the basic formula for all government operations.
on April 21,2014 | 09:05AM
loio wrote:
on April 21,2014 | 03:41PM
pj737 wrote:
With security technology these days being so cheap and reliable I'm surprised these perimeters aren't littered with cameras and motion sensors which would immediately and automatically notify security if it senses the presence of someone scaling a fence.
on April 21,2014 | 09:20AM
KB wrote:
Most of ths shuld have been considered before the tsa full court press that is why law makers have a hard time .you must pass the law before you know whats in it idea .Please do more home work on important problems and have less new bills/laws .;de-tune lobby;aloha
on April 21,2014 | 09:21AM
While waiting at the gate area for numerous flights, I've seen either the pilot or first officer check the aircraft's exterior prior to entering the plane. I don't know if it's mandatory and/or limited to the first flight after an overnight layover, nor do I know if this type of check could have prevented this incident.
on April 21,2014 | 09:40AM
localguy wrote:
You are talking about "Back in the old days" when the pilot would do a visual walk around of the plane. Doesn't happen any more. Not only is there no time for this, aircraft maintenance personal are well trained, most have A&P licenses, what ever it takes. Clearly the boy watched the maintenance team finish their work, then as they left, he walked out and climbed into the wheel well.
on April 21,2014 | 10:17AM
hanalei395 wrote:
The new task for the ramp service crew, just before the push-out: Check AGAIN all wheel undercarriage's, with a flashlight, to make SURE, there is nobody in there.
on April 21,2014 | 11:36AM
I saw it done on an aircraft at SFO last fall so it could be that pilot/first officer just does this on his own initiative.
on April 21,2014 | 11:51AM
wave1 wrote:
I saw this done about a year ago when I flew from Honolulu to the mainland. I was a little surprised and impressed but the pilot spent a lot of time checking the tires and landing gear as well as all other parts of the plane prior to take off.
on April 21,2014 | 01:40PM
Ripoff wrote:
obviously LoL
on April 21,2014 | 09:49AM
false wrote:
Hawaiian needs to improve their standby policies...
on April 21,2014 | 10:03AM
localguy wrote:
Not to mention he didn't want to pay checked baggage fees.
on April 21,2014 | 10:18AM
GorillaSmith wrote:
He probably had more leg room than he would have had in economy.
on April 21,2014 | 01:52PM
localguy wrote:
San Jose Airport Security Officials are trying very hard to spin their willful incompetence as "Not our problem." Wrong answer, it is. When an untrained 16 YO boy can easily bypass airport security to walk up to a plane unchallenged, there is a serious security problem. As in no one with any competence is in charge, no one has a clue what it means to secure the flight line. They would have been better off to admit their failure, we all know of it, interview the boy on how he did it, learn from their mistakes, fix them, and move on. Understand San Jose Airport Security never has been a shining star among USA airports.
on April 21,2014 | 10:12AM
Manoa2 wrote:
There are several areas at Honolulu Airport that would allow someone quick access to runways on foot or by car or motorcycle-- these areas are unsecured, un fenced, and not visible from the control tower-- some of them are at the air cargo area, and some of them near each of the terminals. Chances are you would be spotted but you could get a long way before they caught you.
on April 21,2014 | 01:03PM
GooglyMoogly wrote:
So, what percent does "allow teenager to scale fence and hop into wheel well of airplane" fall under? 12%? 18%?
on April 21,2014 | 10:16AM
cojef wrote:
Scary when an untrained person can scale a fence and have free access to an airplane. This airport certainly could be the weakest link in the total USA airport security system. The total is only as good as the weakest.
on April 21,2014 | 10:33AM
GoldenRule wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on April 21,2014 | 10:59AM
BuhByeAloha wrote:
Maybe we should have a law in this country- No big backpacks. Or maybe-No backpacks whatsoever. Also, women can't carry purses. Men can't carry wallets in their pockets, because it could be mistaken for a firearm.
on April 21,2014 | 12:24PM
handsomeguy wrote:
How can the kid can get away with this when I even have to take off my shoes before I can get on the plane
on April 21,2014 | 11:21AM
Locokane wrote:
Did the pilot forget to inspect the wheel wells during his plane walk around prior to the flight?
on April 21,2014 | 11:32AM
Mei mei wrote:
He is sooo lucky indeed!! or he wold have appeared on "a 1000 ways to die".... that was soo foolish of him... how the heck did he survive?
on April 21,2014 | 11:53AM
false wrote:
Hope he don't get no whooping when he gets home.
on April 21,2014 | 12:51PM
GooglyMoogly wrote:
I'm guessing his body entered a sort of suspended animation due to the cold. Amazing there was no frostbite.
on April 21,2014 | 03:55PM
royboy88 wrote:
Foolish and selfish. He might have come out a human popsicle, and by doing so, had he compromised the landing gear in any way, he just potentially endangered every single person on that plane.
on April 21,2014 | 12:55PM
mcc wrote:
TSA is incompetent. The statement made is, "shame on us!!!!" They should quit or be fired
on April 21,2014 | 01:23PM
wave1 wrote:
I hear Hawaiian Air has sent the boy a bill for a one way coach class ticket.
on April 21,2014 | 01:38PM
kuewa wrote:
The lack of adequate security for the airport perimeter is certainly concerning. Equally concerning is the fact that something as large as a human body can stow away in an airplane section without being detected. It seems that it would be fairly simple to design a detector for the wheel well. But I suppose this would bite into the dinky profits that these airlines make. (Yes, I'm kidding.) Similar problem with having GPS on the planes, which could have made the Malaysian plane disappearance disappear.
on April 21,2014 | 03:22PM
knockumdown wrote:
I think this kid should be applauded. Now there will be tighter security and keeps the U.S.A on our toes. There should be some jobs lost because of this incident. Not only security jobs but airline staffs who should check all perimeters of the plane before take off. Just another example of the laziness of workers. Who knows maybe its another way that drugs get smuggled into Hawaii and other destinations.
on April 21,2014 | 03:26PM
HOSSANA wrote:
How can no criminal charges not be made against this idiot???? And you wonder why security is so complacent and lax at airports!!!!
on April 21,2014 | 05:05PM
HOSSANA wrote:
How can criminal charges not be made against this idiot??
on April 21,2014 | 05:05PM
HOSSANA wrote:
How can criminal charges not be made against this idiot??
on April 21,2014 | 05:07PM
st1d wrote:
perimeter security can be improved, but only one security measure can effectively prevent this from happening again: a wheel well check done by a camera on an extended pole. merely shining a flashlight into the wheel cavity does not give the observer a clear view of the entire wheel well.

pilots still do a physical walk around before taking control of the plane and do use flashlights to examine critical areas. ground crews need to use cameras to examine wheel wells just before pushback. that's the only method that will prevent copy cats.

on April 21,2014 | 05:31PM
soundofreason wrote:
"15-year-old stowaway stirs airport security concerns">>>Ya think??
on April 21,2014 | 07:33PM
soundofreason wrote:
"The boy found his way onto the tarmac during the night, "under the cover of darkness," Barnes said.">>> And you think real terrorists are going to be in the security lines? What are we doing??? We're kidding ourselves with our current "measures".
on April 21,2014 | 07:37PM
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