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Atlanta airport: Hartsfield-Jackson fence breach raises security concerns

An incident in which a man scaled a fence, ran onto an active taxiway and towards a plane full of passengers exposed a long-standing security vulnerability at the world’s busiest airport: Its miles-long perimeter.

“It certainly should be a wake-up call for the airport to review their security procedures and be sure they have all the latest technology,” said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who now has a Washington, D.C.-based safety and security consulting firm. “So if you do have a breach like this you don’t have to depend on… individuals reporting this person.”

The man, who police identified as Jhyrin Jones, 19, allegedly entered a construction area, climbed a fence, crossed a road, scaled another fence that stood 10 feet high topped with three layers of razor wire and ended up on the airfield where planes were taxiing.

Video from a passenger on another flight, shows the man running up to another plane. It appears the man was wearing only shorts. 

The airport said the person was apprehended and the incident did not impact airport operations.

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The incident at Hartsfield-Jackson also caught the attention of federal security officials. “As we see incidents like the one you mentioned in Atlanta… we look at those and we kind of step back and say, ‘Okay how can we work to begin to prevent more of these from happening?” said David Pekoske of the Transportation Security Administration. “We are constantly looking at ways we can make that security system better and more effective.”

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By the next morning, stories of the incident quickly became the stuff of legend.

Did he jump onto the wing of a Delta plane that had just landed from Miami? Perhaps. On Wednesday morning, police said it was still unclear whether he jumped onto the wing.

Did he do a backflip while handcuffed? A judge told Jones at his court appearance: “You made numerous attempts to get away from officers by kicking the patrol vehicle and throwing your body around, including a backflip while being placed into a patrol car,” according to Channel 2 Action News.

Jhyrin Jones, 19, allegedly climbed a fence, entered an airport construction area, scaled another fence that stood 10 feet high topped with three layers of razor wire and ended up on the airfield where planes were taxiing at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Tuesday. WSB FILE PHOTO (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The airport initially reported that a passenger exited a plane while it was stopped on a taxiway, but later said there were “conflicting reports,” and police subsequently said he had jumped the fence.

But the conflicting stories also highlight the level of confusion. For a period of time, it was unclear who this man was, where he came from, and why ran toward a commercial airliner.

An airport employee called to report seeing a man scaling the razor-wire fence, prompting police to respond in about five minutes, according to Atlanta Police Department airport commander Timothy Peek.

“I believe the system worked,” Peek said, but added that he was “concerned” about someone getting into a restricted area.

It’s not the first breach of the airport perimeter. In past years, a man ran past a security guard in the airport cargo area and across two runways, and in another instance someone threw a bag to someone located inside the fenced-in area.

This time, the razor wire fence was apparently not a deterrent, though Peek said Jones’ demeanor was not ordinary and he had minor injuries.

This is a screenshot from a video taken by (Garth Magness) of a man allegedly approaching an aircraft at Harsfield-Jackson International Airport. Magness gave Channel 2 Action News and the AJC permission to publish the video. (Garth Magness)

“The fence is really a delaying action,” said Jeff Price, a Colorado-based aviation security expert. “It’s a layer that’s not meant to be like a gigantic wall…. It’s not impenetrable.”

“It enables the airport personnel, whether it’s first responders or just those working on the ramps, to be able to spot a potential intruder and report it,” Price said.

Security cameras captured footage of him climbing the fence, but those cameras are among more than 2,000 at the airport and are not monitored real-time, according to Peek.

Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security for Airports Council International, said in an e-mail there is no perfect perimeter security system, but multiple layers of security “provide an effective system to deter and detect potential intruders.”

An airport contractor, All(n)1 Security, does constant 24-hour patrols of the airport perimeter, with vehicles split up into three zones.

But Hartsfield-Jackson does not have motion-detection technology that would trigger an alarm if someone climbed a fence.

One of the challenges with a motion detection system or radar sensors at an airport is constant movement of people and things in the area, Price said. Other technologies use tension wires to detect someone climbing a fence.

“We’ll look at everything,” said Jan Lennon, Hartsfield-Jackson’s security director.

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