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Drunk Va. woman drove on airport runway raises security concerns

Though police believe no harm was meant, authorities are concerned about peoples' abilities to breach airport perimeters

By Liana Bayne
The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Crews quickly went to work repairing the crumpled chain-link fence after a woman smashed her car through it and zipped onto a Charlottesville Albemarle Airport runway early Wednesday, officials said.

But some work has just begun. The federal Transportation Security Administration will conduct an inspection and investigation following the incident, agency spokeswoman Lisette Garcia said.

Authorities charged Christina Jewell, 33, of Charlottesville, with driving under the influence and reckless driving after she drove off Dickerson Road, crashed her car through the fence on the south end of the airport and drove onto the runway at about 1 a.m., police said.

Airport police stopped Jewell, airport spokesman Jason Burch said. The last flight of the day had landed 90 minutes earlier and the next flight wasn't scheduled for takeoff until about 5 a.m., he said. Still, the runway was immediately shut down. No one was hurt. 

Perimeter security breaches long have been common at airports around the country, even in the years after 9/11, frequently in situations like the one here early Wednesday — cases of drivers smashing through fences, rather than instances of people bent on doing harm.

"I've worked at three other airports and at every one of them we've had vehicle accidents that breached the perimeter of the airport," said airport Executive Director Melinda Crawford.

She added: "To the staff's knowledge, that's the first time someone's breached as far as the runway."

How best to safeguard airport perimeters has been a concern for years in the world of aviation security, and it's been a frequent topic in post-9/11 reports produced by the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

While passengers wade through tight TSA scrutiny inside terminals, airports are guarded on the outside in most cases by a fence like the one that stands outside Charlottesville Albemarle Airport — eight-feet tall chain-link penetrable by a simple step on the gas.

Garcia said airports create security plans that TSA must approve. She said the plan is part of what the agency refers to in the event of a breach. Burch said the fence around the airport's property is included in inspections of the airport's compliance with Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration regulations.

"We maintain strict compliance," Crawford said.

The fence is relatively new, but not crash-proof, Burch said. "No fence is designed to take the velocity of an oncoming car," he said.

Burch said the fence is part of the airport's security that also includes cameras and police officers.

Police patrol the fence, workers keeps the grass low around the fence and regularly check it.

"We do a very diligent job," Crawford said.

That applied Wednesday, too, Burch said.

"We take every case seriously, but approach it with common sense," he said. "There's a difference between if you had someone maliciously trying to get through versus if you have a car driven by someone who police say was drunk."

"Airport police responded quickly," he said. "We were back in business in 30 minutes. I think we handled it well."

Burch said airport maintenance workers began repairing the fence almost immediately after the crash.

Jewell was being held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail on a $2,500 secured bond.

Copyright 2013 The Daily Progress

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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