For the second time this year, an intruder dashed across the tarmac and interfered with a flight — and security experts say it’ll likely happen again

By Gary Walker

Flight passenger Maria Reyes snapped this photo of the intruder lying on the tarmac before he approached the plane.
Photo courtesy of Maria Reyes

Law enforcement officials at Los Angeles International Airport are reviewing safety protocols after a homeless man was able to scale a perimeter fence, lie down on the runway and approach a departing Delta passenger plane before he was stopped.

Playa del Rey resident Maria Reyes was on that Aug. 27 flight to Utah, which was delayed for nearly two hours.

“I was sitting in the window seat by the left wing when the captain announced someone was loose on the tarmac,” Reyes recalled. “I saw him lying down on the runway, and he waved at me. He had this huge, crazy grin on his face. Then he jumped up and ran towards my window. That’s when I started to get worried.”

Los Angeles Airport Police spokesman Rob Pedregon said witnesses saw 23-year-old Luis Aguilar race across Lincoln Boulevard and jump the airport’s perimeter fence near Westchester Parkway, then run along the tarmac toward the plane before police eventually subdued him.

Police also conducted a sweep of the area to make sure that no explosives or weapons had been left on the tarmac, and “because the suspect came within close proximity of the aircraft, maintenance did a quick safety inspection of the plane,” Pedregon said.

“We’ll be conducting an in-depth investigation and look at how we can improve our perimeter security. We take this very, very seriously,” he added.

But Aguilar isn’t the first person this year to make his way onto an LAX runway after scaling a fence. On Feb. 10, 31-year-old Eduardo Hernandez scaled a barbed wire fence along Westchester Parkway, made his way to a Southwest plane and shoved a fire extinguisher into an airplane wheel well before he was arrested. Police told the LA Times he was likely under the influence of drug and told officers he was trying to catch a flight to Downey.

These aren’t the first and most likely won’t be the last such incidents at LAX or any other large American airport, aviation security experts say.

“Security is not 100% bulletproof. Incidents like this tell us that we have to step up security throughout our airports,” said Leticia Monteagudo, executive direc-
tor of the Miami-based airport and school security consulting firm Smart Security.

Metropolitan State University of Denver Professor Jeff Price, a leading airport security expert, said airport perimeters should be monitored by security cameras, but not all of them are.

“TSA does not require any perimeter detection system to have surveillance installed at this time,” said Price, who worked as an outside security consultant for LAX from 2012 to 2014.

An Associated Press analysis covering 2004 to 2016 found 345 security breaches at the nation’s major airports that involved scaling a barrier, not simply bypassing TSA screeners at checkpoints or entering a prohibited area inside a terminal. LAX, the second-busiest airport in the nation, ranked fourth-highest with 26 breaches.

Given that LAX is surrounded by both commercial and residential areas, Price said the number of breaches is not surprising.

“For an airport of that size, considering where it’s located, we would expect them to have more. The good news is so far there hasn’t been a terror or sabotage act by jumping a fence that has been completed,” said Price, who worked on the AP study.

The deadliest attack at LAX to date was the November 2013 shooting spree at Terminal 3, in which gunman Paul Cianca killed TSA officer Gerardo Hernandez and wounded three others after using a semiautomatic rifle to blast his way through a security checkpoint.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles), whose district includes LAX, held a congressional hearing on the airport’s response to the shooting in March 2014 after an active shooter review found there was a lack of communication among airport officials, police, emergency service personnel and federal authorities and that some of the airport’s emergency communications equipment did not work at the time of Cianci’s assault.

The report did, however, credit the Los Angeles Airport Police with preventing additional fatalities.

Experts say the priorities of smooth operations and a good customer experience often bump up against the realities of securing an airport.

“It’s all about funding.  Airports are like a huge umbrella, and all of the different parts of it need to be funded,” Monteagudo said.

“You have so many competing priorities for money, and you just can’t go to your commission or board and ask for money all the time. … Security starts going to the back of the line if there hasn’t been an incident in a while,” Price said.

Smart Security Risk Management Director José Gonzales said that despite last week’s security breach, LAX police reacted well to the situation.

“In this instance everything workedin conjunction with the response. The objective was met and the suspect was arrested,” said Gonzalez, formerly a deputy commander with the Miami Police Department.

But, “What if he had an explosive?” Monteagudo pondered. “The consequences could have been different.”

Nonetheless, Price said fence-jumping onto airport property is likely to remain an issue.

“I think we will still see them from time to time,” he said.  “Until there is a major act from someone jumping over a fence, I think we’re going to see perimeter security stay about where it’s at now.”