The nation's anti-terrorist experts and the Transportation Safety Authority might be looking in all the wrong places for breaches in the effort to safeguard the nation's flying public. There is, it seems, a far easier way for a would-be creator of mayhem to bypass the safety and security systems in place to protect the nation's planes and the passengers than sneaking through checkpoints at the nation's airports. It's a lot easier to go to a smaller airport that is served by commuter jets, climb a fence and steal a plane that can fly at more than 500 mph and has a range of about 1,700 miles.
Sound far-fetched? It isn't.
Brian Hedglin, an airline pilot and an uncharged murder suspect, climbed a razor wire-topped security fence at tiny St. George Municipal Airport in Utah earlier this week, boarded an unlocked SkyWest jet airliner and powered up its engines. He taxied the plane, struck a terminal building and crashed into cars in a parking lot before coming to a stop. Law enforcement officials say he then shot himself in the head. That ended the caper, but the incident understandably raises flags throughout the airport security community. It should.
Hedglin, a SkyWest pilot on leave since July 13 when police named him a person of interest after the body of his girlfriend was discovered, obviously knew how to start the plane's engines. He probably did not need specialized knowledge to gain entry to the parked plane.
Anyone — a would-be terrorist or joyrider — could do the same in circumstances similar to those in Utah. Experts say there were probably security measures — codes, sequences of events, etc. — that would make it difficult to start the engines, but no one is sure if they were in place. Even if they were, it's likely that a would-be but well-schooled terrorist would have enough knowledge to bypass the safeguards. Besides, airport security should be sophisticated enough to stop someone before he or she can gain access to the cockpit of a parked plane.
On Tuesday, it was not. Multiple layers of security failed. That flaw needs to be eliminated.
Hedglin wasn't a terrorist, it seems, but a malefactor could mimic his actions and gain access to plane. No telling what would occur then.
Incredibly, the St. George airport currently meets all Federal Administration and TSA security requirements. Hedglin scaled a fence to gain access to the plane, but the TSA doesn't require airports to maintain full-time surveillance of the miles of fencing that surrounds most facilities. Maybe it should.
Easy access to a jet that can carry a big payload at high speed for long distances is an invitation to disaster. In this instance, the plane was commandeered by an obviously distraught individual with no apparent ties or interest in terrorism. In other hands, though, the easily commandeered jet could have become a source of death and destruction. Security measures should be updated to help to prevent that possibility.