PHOENIX - At Sky Harbor, the nation’s ninth busiest airport, a security measure that was put in place more than two years ago remains inoperable.
In recent years, airports around the country have installed secondary barriers at their perimeter gates, such as heavy-duty hydraulic arms and large metal plates that rise and lower out of the ground until a vehicle has passed.
Sky Harbor appears to have installed secondary barriers like this at every one of its perimeter gates surrounding its runway and terminals.
But, the ABC15 Investigators found at one gate where tankers carrying tons of jet fuel enter on a regular basis, the metal plates – called pop-ups – have never been fully operational. The plates were installed more than two years ago, according to Sky Harbor.
“They’re still testing at that gate,” said Sky Harbor Deputy Aviation Director Deborah Ostreicher, who stressed the pop-ups are an extra security measure not required by the Transportation Security Administration.
But, aviation security expert Glen Winn, with Condor-Avsec, Inc. , sees a serious problem.
“This is a real hazard and a real security breach,” Winn said after seeing the inoperable pop-ups. “You can't just have tools that are half-broken, half-operative. That doesn’t work.”
A ‘WORST-CASE SCENARIO’
More than 100,000 passengers fly in and out of Sky Harbor International Airport every day and nearly 1,000 tons of cargo is moved here daily.
“Here sits two huge fuel tanks, right inside the gate,” said Winn, who has worked planning airport and airline security for more than 30 years.
Just inside the gate in question, you’ll find FedEx and UPS loading docks and you can watch passenger planes take off and land.
At this gate, a guard checks the credentials of any driver that pulls up, checks under and around the car with a mirror, and then opens the gate for the vehicle to drive through. Signage shows vehicles are required to stop just inside the open gate and wait until it is fully closed before they go any further.
But, for more than a month of watching the gate, the ABC15 Investigators never saw the pop-ups here rise before and after a vehicle goes through to prevent them from storming the gate.
This leaves the airport vulnerable to what Winn calls a worst-case scenario: a truck full of explosives driving through that gate and onto an active runway.
“Picture it driving into a passenger-loaded airplane out on the runway, or any of these big freight aircraft we saw out there,” Winn said, “and you have mayhem, loss of life.”
Sky Harbor reports the pop-ups cost $117,000 of airport revenue to install in August, 2010 and said they have never been fully operational.
“We’re still testing at that gate,” Ostreicher said. “We hope to have them up and operational soon.”
Citing security restrictions, Ostreicher would not provide ABC15 with any maintenance records for the gate.
But, last year, the importance of working barriers like these pop-ups took on new meaning at Sky Harbor when a woman crashed through a different perimeter gate in her car .
On November 15, 2012, Koko Nicole Anderson drove through the fence at gate 119 at Sky Harbor and across an active runway with her infant son in the car.
Anderson was apprehended by police quickly, but, at the time, Ostreicher stressed the importance of secondary barriers, like the hydraulic arm at gate 119.
“You can be in a semi-truck going 100 miles an hour, fully loaded – you’re not making it through that hydraulic gate arm,” Ostreicher said.
At the time Anderson crashed through gate 119, the hydraulic arm was up and the gate was in the process of being closed, according to the police report from the Phoenix Police Department. That’s because it was being tested, Ostreicher told the media at the time, just like the pop-ups at the gate that concerns Winn.
Ostreicher told the ABC15 Investigators the pop-ups have been tested for two years.
Any vehicle that crashed into a plane or a loaded fuel tanker could cause a disaster.
Two fuel tank drivers who were at Sky Harbor the night Anderson breached the gate said they got out of their trucks and ran for their lives.
“Both men stated they did not want to [be] anywhere close to the fuel trucks if they were run into,” according to the police report.
Anderson also drove near five aviation fuel tanks just off the north side of the runway at Sky Harbor that day. Each holds approximately 1.25 million gallons of aviation jet fuel, according to the police report.
Just days after the ABC15 Investigators contacted Sky Harbor about the pop-ups, the barriers were working again.
But, Ostreicher said the pop-ups are “being worked on all the time” and are still being tested.
To Winn, working on the pop-ups is not enough.
Standing just beyond the gate in question, Winn said he saw, “millions in equipment sitting here.” He pointed to the active fuel tanks just inside, as well as freight planes, nearby offices and the close proximity of the airport