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St. George incident shows airports need more security, Chaffetz says

Published: Wednesday, July 18 2012 6:11 p.m. MDT

An aerial view shows the St. George Municipal Airport Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Congressman Jason Chaffetz is calling for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following the theft of a jet in St. George. (Jud Burkett, The Spectrum) An aerial view shows the St. George Municipal Airport Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Congressman Jason Chaffetz is calling for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following the theft of a jet in St. George. (Jud Burkett, The Spectrum)

SALT LAKE CITY — Congressman Jason Chaffetz on Wednesday reiterated a call for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following Tuesday's breach in St. George.

"You have to treat the smaller airports very similarly to a larger airport," he said. "You may not have as many people going there, but you're trying to find the bad apple."

He said billions of dollars have been spent throughout the years on the execution of various security measures at airports throughout the country, but more needs to be done in terms of screening employees. More than a million identification badges have been issued at the country's approximately 450 airports, which Chaffetz says poses a "very unique security risk."

"Once somebody is able to get into the system, they have access to every part of the system," he said. Access to aircraft, Chaffetz added, only increases security risks.

An aerial view shows the St. George Municipal Airport Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Congressman Jason Chaffetz is calling for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following the theft of a jet in St. George. (Jud Burkett, The Spectrum) An aerial view shows the St. George Municipal Airport Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Congressman Jason Chaffetz is calling for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following the theft of a jet in St. George. (Jud Burkett, The Spectrum)

"It could be anything from a small Cessna to a larger regional jet. Unfortunately, our country has a history of these being used as weapons," said Chaffetz, R-Utah.

Aside from interior security screening protocols, barbed wire fencing is usually all that stands between the public and airport property. The physical barriers can usually be crossed with little effort, said Logan Harris, CEO at SpotterRF, an Orem-based surveillance technology company.

SpotterRF has been deploying ground surveillance radar systems at military establishments throughout the country for several years. Their programs have the ability to detect movement beyond and inside fence lines and alert personnel of a security breach before it is too late, Harris said.

"Airports often cover a very large area and cameras alone cannot get 24/7 coverage of that space," he said, adding that some large, high-profile airports can afford to have multiple layers of radar surveillance, which can be costly and complex. Smaller airports have limited resources and often have to forgo such technology, which can present a greater security risk.

A SkyWest regional jet sits on the tarmac on the opposite end of the St. George Municipal Airport Tuesday, July 17, 2012. A SkyWest Airlines employee wanted in a murder case stole the passenger plane, then shot himself in the head after crashing the aircraft in a nearby parking lot, officials said Tuesday. Congressman Jason Chaffetz is calling for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following the theft of a jet in St. George. (Jud Burkett, The Spectrum) A SkyWest regional jet sits on the tarmac on the opposite end of the St. George Municipal Airport Tuesday, July 17, 2012. A SkyWest Airlines employee wanted in a murder case stole the passenger plane, then shot himself in the head after crashing the aircraft in a nearby parking lot, officials said Tuesday. Congressman Jason Chaffetz is calling for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following the theft of a jet in St. George. (Jud Burkett, The Spectrum)

"Physical barriers alone are not sufficient to stop someone from getting into the airport," Harris said, alluding to Tuesday's incident at the St. George airport. Had the airport had some ground radar system in place, he said the SkyWest employee who jumped the fence there would've been detected the second he came near the fence.

Ground surveillance radar was successful in detecting a drunken driver who accessed the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport earlier this year. Officials were able to take action in that event, preventing potentially catastrophic results, Harris said.

"This is a widespread problem across most small airports that don't have the funds or capabilities to provide full perimeter surveillance," he said.

In 2009, Chaffetz spoke to the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee about the lack of airport perimeter security. At the time, officials encouraged the federal Transportation Security Administration to develop a comprehensive risk assessment of airport security, as well as set priorities dealing with perimeter fencing and access.

An aerial view shows the St. George Municipal Airport Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Congressman Jason Chaffetz is calling for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following the theft of a jet in St. George. (Jud Burkett, The Spectrum) An aerial view shows the St. George Municipal Airport Tuesday, July 17, 2012. Congressman Jason Chaffetz is calling for enhanced security efforts at the nation's airports following the theft of a jet in St. George. (Jud Burkett, The Spectrum)

According to a report presented to the subcommittee, there were 2,819 security breaches at U.S. airports reported to the TSA during 2008. While some of the breaches were accidental, it was assumed that the majority were due to a lack of perimeter security. Hundreds of airport workers had been flagged for smuggling weapons or drugs into off-limits areas within the airport, according to the report.

A lack of oversight at the time prompted further scrutiny, which Chaffetz said remains necessary.

"By and large, most airports don't ever have a serious infraction and so you can get a bit complacent," he said.

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