Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Newark Liberty Airport Security Mess

The Port Authority of New York/New Jersey should be downright embarrassed over its handling of security at Newark Liberty airport. They are responsible for the infrastructure and deployment of methods to prevent inappropriate access of secured areas, and now comes word that during this weekend's landing of a crippled aircraft, the radio systems used by emergency personnel failed.
United Airlines Flight 634, its right landing gear malfunctioning, was approaching Newark on Sunday morning when rescue crews were alerted to race to the runway and prepare for a crash landing.

But by the time the teams were in place, their radios went dead, apparently because of utility work nearby.

"There couldn't have been a worse time for it to go down," a source said of the foul-up involving the Port Authority's Air Fire Rescue frequency.

At 8:50 a.m., the emergency system alerted rescue teams to the possibly crippled airliner approaching Newark. But soon after, a sergeant on the ground realized he couldn't communicate with his desk or other squads.

Using cellphones, cops alerted the crews to switch to backup frequencies. But by the time that happened, sources said, the Airbus had already safely skidded to its landing, with the 48 passengers and crew members on board scampering from the craft on emergency slides.

A PA spokesman confirmed that the first-responder frequency went down, but insisted crews were always able to communicate.

"The sergeant realized what was happening, and he told people they needed to switch frequencies to communicate with each other," the spokesman said.

Sources said the radio failure was only one of a spate of police communications failures.

Airport patrol officers lost their radio contact at the same time the rescue frequencies went out, the sources insisted yesterday.
The problem with radio contact also occurred at JFK airport. Emergency personnel were able to contact each other with cell phones.

Thankfully, the plane was able to land with no loss of life and everyone was able to walk away from the crash.

However, the problems point to problems with the way the Port Authority is managing airport operations.

Why was there no security gates to prevent someone from walking back through exits as a lovestruck man did last week, causing major delays and a security nightmare for the TSA? Why were security cameras inoperative?

The video systems have a spotty record, and Sen. Bob Menendez has called for more funding.

These are questions that must be asked of Port Authority managers at the airport, and they must be resolved immediately since the lives of travelers and the general public are put at risk.

In the meantime, security will be doubled at the exits - so that two TSA security guards will be at the exit areas at all times, to avoid a repeat of the circumstances last week.
Sources told The News that the TSA guard at the exit was spotted on security video chatting on his cell phone at the moment of the trespass. TSA officials refused to comment on the specifics of the failure, which delayed more than 100 flights for up to seven hours.

"TSA is reviewing all of the circumstances surrounding the breach and how it happened," Davis said. "And if there are lessons that can be learned here, we will take further actions."

Sunday's security blunder - coming nine days after a 23-year-old Nigerian with Al Qaeda ties made a botched, Christmas Day attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound flight - did nothing to ease fears about the nation's air safety. Jitters continued yesterday as portions of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were evacuated after a bomb-sniffing dog detected a suspicious bag, although closer inspection revealed nothing dangerous.

In Bakersfield, Calif., the airport was shut down for hours after routine swabbing of some bags tested positive for TNT. Inside, five Gatorade bottles filled with amber liquid were found - but the mystery liquid turned out to be honey, local officials said.

Newark's screwup began after an unidentified man was spotted by a sharp-eyed bystander on Sunday walking unchallenged into an exitway in Terminal C, where only screened passengers are supposed to be.
The man caught on the video is
Haisong Jiang, 28, of Piscataway, who confessed to walking into the secured area of the airport via the exit when Port Authority detectives showed up at his Piscataway home. He faces a charge of defiant trespass.

Meanwhile, if you think that bomb-sniffing dogs are infallible, think again. Three dogs at Philadelphia's airport failed recertification tests, and the local Congressional representative is demanding replacements be sent immediately to supplement the existing group of bomb sniffing dogs that are used to screen cargo at the airport.

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