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Chicago Department of Aviation

Chicago's Midway airport.

Could a Brussels-style airport perimeter breach happen in Chicago?

by Idyli Tsakiri Karatzaferi
Feb 26, 2013

The audacious robbery of $50 million in diamonds from a passenger airplane in Brussels last week raises questions about the security of airport perimeters, including those at O’Hare and Midway.

The eight robbers burst through the airport’s perimeter fence, riding two vehicles with blue police lights and unloaded the diamonds from the plane, only 18 minutes before its departure to Switzerland. Then they simply drove away.

Could terrorists gain access to O’Hare or Midway’s tarmac as easily?

A 2010 report by the Aspen Institute on Chicago’s preparedness for terrorism cited airport perimeter security at O’Hare and Midway as a concern.

According to this report, James Maurer who was at the time the managing deputy commissioner for safety and security of the Chicago Department of Aviation, said that he was particularly concerned about the perimeter because the airport is protected by only a cyclone fence.

Maurer contended in a 2010 lawsuit challenging his 2009 firing by the department that he was dismissed for his persistent warnings about security gaps at O’Hare. The city denied the charge, saying he was a disgruntled employee.

He told the Chicago Tribune at the time that security at the airport was "easily defeatable" and claimed O'Hare ranks as the "least secure airport in the country."

Karen Pride, director of media relations in the CDA declined to comment on the perimeter security specifically, but said that “safety and security are the highest priorities for the CDA.”

“The CDA has a multi-layered system of security at O'Hare and Midway International Airports, that includes city and federal law enforcement agencies,” Pride said.

Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport who is now president of the New Age Security Solution, a consulting firm located in Washington,gave O’Hare credit for an early move to increase perimeter security.

“O’Hare was one of the first airports to install intrusion detection system in their perimeter, 12 years ago,” Ron said. Most U.S. airports still do not have intrusion detection on their perimeters, Ron said.

It is only within the last few years that U.S. airports started budgeting for the security in their perimeter, Ron said.

“Overall the situation with perimeter protection in American airports is not satisfactory,” he added.

“This is a worldwide problem and we saw that even in airports that are supposedly protecting their perimeter, like Brussels, we see high class robberies,” Ron said.

During a 2011 Congressional hearing on airport security, T. J. Orr, aviation director at the Charlotte, N.C., airport, said “The fence does not serve as a deterrent. It keeps wildlife outside the airport. It provides a visual barrier and/or boundary. … The perimeter fence does not represent total security.”

Since 2010 there have been at least five reported incidents of perimeter security breaches in the U.S.

In August 2012 a jet skier broke through the JFK Airport’s security system. A month earlier Brian Hedglin, a pilot and murder suspect fleeing police, used a rug to cover the razor wire at the perimeter fence at Utah’s St. George Municipal Airport, then climbed it and stole a jet, before crashing it in the parking lot and shooting himself.

In March of the same year, a man crashed his SUV through a fence at Philadelphia International Airport and led police on a chase across multiple runways forcing planes to be diverted before he was caught.

Neal Pollard, former CIA agent and director of forensic technology solutions in the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that terrorists have targeted aviation in general for numerous reasons, at least since 1960.

“Once it was for transport and attention, but as 9/11 demonstrated, it's also to produce casualties,” Pollard said.

“I think the U.S. does an excellent job, both in terms of passenger safety, but also in terms of insider personnel security,” Pollard added. “I can't recall any successful terrorist plots in U.S. aviation in recent memory that exploited insider access.”