Kid Dodges Security and Narrow Seats for Ride in Jet Wheel Well from San Jose to Hawaii

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
(photo: Bill Abbott, Creative Commons)

A 16-year-old runaway boy defied medical odds and the best-laid plans of San Jose International Airport security officials when he climbed over a fence early on Sunday and hopped in the left wheel well of a Boeing 767 destined for Hawaii.

Five and a half hours later, after flying mostly unconscious, in freezing temperatures, through thin air at an elevation of 38,000 feet, the boy landed, awoke and began to walk away. The Santa Clara youth did not get far. He was spotted on the tarmac, security and medical personnel were called and the boy was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced fit.

He survived temperatures that theoretically could have reached 80 below zero, but were probably closer to minus 50. There was not enough oxygen to sustain consciousness. Most people die under those circumstances. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says only 25 out of 105 known stowaways since 1947 have survived that kind of trip.

The boy, who reportedly ran away from home after a fight with his father, was interviewed by the FBI and released to child protective services.

While he recovers from his trip, San Jose airport officials will assess the damage to any pretense of security at their facility. Airport security spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes told the San Jose Mercury News that the airport's security program “meets and exceeds all federal requirements.” But, she conceded, “He could have scaled the fence line really through any area here at the airport. It's very easy to do so under the cover of darkness, and it appears that's what he did.”

A review of surveillance tapes does not show him scaling the fence, which is usually around 6 feet high. He is believed to have come over late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, sneaking on to the closest available plane, which left at 7:55 a.m. for Kahului Airport in Maui. A figure was caught on camera approaching the plane, but apparently that was spotted in review because no one is on the record as mentioning it at the time.

Although some security measures at airports have been loosened in the years since 9/11, others have been beefed up and disagreements continue over what's next. A report (pdf) published in the Journal of Air Transport Management last year argued that too much money was being spent on airport security, considering the meager returns on the investment. Isaac Yeffet, a security consultant and former head of security for the Israeli airline El Al, told the Associated Press the stowaway shows that U.S. airport security might have invested its billions of dollars more wisely. “Perimeters are not well protected. We see it again and again,” he said.

The city of San Jose is not filing charges against the kid. There is no word if Hawaiian Airlines is going to charge the youth for the price of a ticket or if American Airlines will apply the lessons learned to its quest for even tinier space for its passengers. For now, it's business as usual.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Stowaway: San Jose Airport Security Scrutinized after Boy's Flight to Maui In Plane's Wheel Well (by Robert Salonga and Mark Gomez, San Jose Mercury News)

16-Year-Old Survives Unharmed Stowed Away in Wheel Well of California to Hawaii Flight, Say FBI Officials (by Martha Mendoza and Oskar Garcia, Associated Press)

Teen Jet Stowaway Managed to Breach Airport Security Measures (by Kate Mather and Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times)

How Jet Stowaways Can Survive Cold, Lack of Oxygen (by Justin Pritchard, Associated Press)

Report Concludes Too Much Money Spent on Airport Security (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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