Aviation security is generally high-profile and overt at international airports in the US, with multiple layers of security features, including perimeter fencing, security camera usage and controlled access points, as well as armed personnel conducting active patrols. However, analysis of publicly available data by Osprey Flight Solutions indicates there have been several notable incidents involving security breaches at aviation facilities, ranging from business/general aviation facilities through regional airports to major international hubs and military facilities.

Between January and October 2022, Osprey issued eight alerts highlighting 32 notable security breaches that indicated security gaps at aviation facilities in the US. Some of the incidents involved individuals who were under the influence of alcohol or narcotics or who were suffering from mental health issues; however, in most cases, the motivations of the individuals remain unknown.

Osprey:Explore graph showing aviation security 'pings' in the US between 1 January 2019 and 31 October 2022

Breaches involving violence against aviation workers

Concerningly, several security breach incidents recorded by Osprey in 2022 have involved violence against aviation workers.

Osprey:Explore map showing the location of a security breach involving violence against aviation staff in August 2022

On 28 August, Louisville Airport Police arrested a man for assaulting a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent at Louisville International Airport (KSDF/SDF), Kentucky. The agent had attempted to prevent the passenger from breaching security at a passenger screening checkpoint. The passenger had entered one of the exit lanes and urged other passengers to follow him, prompting TSA to suspend the screening process.

Osprey:Explore map showing the location of a security breach prompted by passenger panic in August 2022

Such security breaches have occasionally prompted widespread panic among passengers. For example, on 14 August, at Las Vegas Harry Reid International Airport (KLAS/LAS), Nevada, a male passenger pushed past a Spirit Airlines ticket employee, injuring her, and forced his way through a secure door. Shortly after, the individual injured another Spirit Airlines worker who attempted to stop him before the police arrived. During the incident, line-dividing stanchions fell to the ground, producing loud bangs that sounded like gunshots, causing panic in the terminal and a “stampede” through the checkpoints.

Security breaches involving other criminal activity

In 2022, Osprey recorded two security breaches perpetrated for the purpose of committing further criminal activity in airside areas of aviation facilities. In both cases, which occurred within two weeks of one another, thieves stole navigation gear and radios from a total of four aircraft parked at Warrenton-Fauquier Airport (KHWY), Virginia, and Charleston Executive Airport (KJZI), South Carolina. In South Carolina, the doors and windows of the aircraft were also damaged. However, it is not clear whether the thefts were perpetrated by insiders with legitimate airside access or by individuals who breached security measures to access the airside part of the facility, for example, via the perimeter fence. Regardless, the individuals responsible may have sought to take advantage of perceived or actual lower levels of security at smaller aviation facilities.

Perimeter security breaches

Osprey alerts have highlighted multiple perimeter security breaches at US airports, including individuals climbing over perimeter fences as well as vehicular breaches.

Osprey:Explore map showing the location of a vehicular security breach in July 2022

For example, on 13 July, an individual rammed his vehicle through a gate at Oneida County Airport (KUCA/UCA), New York. Notably, he was found to have earlier made threats to shoot people to a security officer at a US Air Force research laboratory, and he was charged with making a terroristic threat, among other criminal charges. Separately, on 6 March, a vehicle and its two occupants “drove through the security checkpoint and failed to adhere to commands of security personnel” at the main gate of Joint Base Andrews (KADW/ADW), Maryland, forcing authorities to close the gate for six hours. Of note, the incident occurred shortly after the reported arrival of Vice President Kamala Harris at the base.

Individuals have also breached security by climbing over aviation facilities’ perimeter fences. Such an incident occurred on 9 February at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport (PHKO/KOA), Hawaii, causing the airport’s security checkpoint to shut down for 90 minutes. More than 1,000 passengers were rescreened and five flights were delayed as a result.

Passenger terminal security breaches

Osprey’s US security breach alerts have also highlighted numerous examples of breaches that occurred within terminals, including at security screening checkpoints, via exit lanes and involving access to sterile areas via access-restricted doors. On some occasions, individuals successfully gained access to airside areas and aircraft. For example, on 1 October at Memphis International Airport (KMEM/MEM), a man forcibly gained access to a restricted area before unlawfully boarding a commercial aircraft. Employees forced him to leave the plane, but the individual returned to a restricted area near the ramp where he was confronted by police.     

Outlook

In light of continuing staffing shortages in some locations in the US following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as increased passenger numbers and the global cost-of-living crisis, frustration among passengers and increasing criminality may result in continued high numbers of security breaches at US aviation facilities into 2023. Such breaches, while apparently unintentional and/or driven by benign intent in most instances, are concerning and highlight vulnerabilities that could be exploited by individuals with nefarious intent, for example, those wishing to conduct an attack on an aviation facility and/or air assets. Vandalism, tampering or sabotage in airside areas of any airport are also general concerns. Osprey will continue to monitor security breach incidents at aviation facilities globally and provide up-to-date, detailed information and advice via our alerts.

About the author

Mathilde Tisserand Aviation Security Analyst

Mathilde is an Aviation Security Analyst. She has a particular interest in crime perpetrated at aviation facilities and corruption among employees, especially in Latin America. Prior to joining Osprey, Mathilde was a geopolitical intelligence analyst for a strategic intelligence and advisory firm where she specialised in identifying security, financial, regulatory, political and cyber risks to businesses in the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa. She also worked for a global travel security consultancy company identifying risks to business travellers.

Mathilde holds a master’s degree in Security, Intelligence, and Risk Management from Sciences Po Lille, France. During her final internship as part of her studies, she worked for a geopolitical consultancy where she developed one of the first case studies examining security threats facing a specific airline.

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