SALT LAKE CITY — For a few tense moments on Thursday, an intoxicated driver created a commotion and the possibility of disaster when he drove his Jeep onto a busy runway at Philadelphia International Airport. An airline pilot was forced to abort his landing to avoid a collision with the speeding vehicle.
Officials admit a similar situation could also occur in Utah. Salt Lake City International Airport has 33 gates and 50 miles of fencing. In various places, the security perimeter could potentially be breached by a speeding vehicle.
"You know, is any security program 100 percent?" asked Dave Korzep, superintendent of Airport Operations at Salt Lake City International. "It could happen, but we have measures in place."
In the Philadelphia incident, police say 24-year-old Kenneth Mazik crashed his Jeep through a fence and onto an active runway. As security vehicles pursued the Jeep, a pilot radioed the control tower, "Hey, what's going on over on the right?"
The tower controller responded, "I don't know. We're trying to figure that out now."
The tower did manage to warn the pilot of a US Airways jetliner as he was about to land in the path of the speeding Jeep. The pilot aborted the landing and no one was hurt.
"It could have been a disaster of epic proportion had it been someone with mal-intention," said aviation security expert Erroll Southers.
In Salt Lake City, it's possible to drive up to a fence or gate without being immediately challenged. Most perimeter areas do not have sturdy barriers such as concrete walls or stanchions. A news crew driving up to the fence on Friday was challenged by an airport worker after just a few seconds, but a determined driver could have crashed through the fence to a runway area before any counter-measures would be taken.
"It could happen," Korzep said, "but the key is to be proactive in your patrols and surveillance and staying on top of your situational awareness. The airfield is also patrolled by airport police, constantly. And we do have over 1,000 closed-circuit TV cameras."
The Philadelphia incident echoed a similar breach of security in Arizona in 2005. A man fleeing police in a stolen pickup truck crashed through a fence at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and raced past several parked airliners.
Korzep recalls an incident in Salt Lake City many years ago in which an elderly couple innocently penetrated the security fence in their own car. They were trying to figure out where the terminal was and blundered through a construction gate that had been accidentally left open. "And I happened to be there," Korzep recalled, chuckling. "I said 'follow me out of this' and I took them to Terminal One."
Korzep said it would be impractical to install motorized piston-style barriers at gates such as are in place at Hill Air Force Base. He also said it would be highly expensive to beef up 50 miles of fencing.
"It's not a prison, it's not a military installation. You have to be cost-effective," Korzep said. "Are you gonna put a moat around the place?"
The suspect in Philadelphia faces DUI, trespass, assault and other charges.
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