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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Cleared for takeoff ... oh wait, there's a guy on the runway

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Published:   |   Updated: May 22, 2014 at 09:22 AM

Southwest Airlines Flight 50, a Boeing 737, was about to depart to Houston from Tampa International Airport on Monday afternoon. As it moved along Taxiway C near the end of Runway 1 Right, the pilot noticed something, well, unusual.

There was a man standing on the runway.

The pilot radioed the tower, and 911 calls were coming in, too, from other people who were watching and wondering if a terrorist was about to detonate himself and the airliner.

According to airport spokeswoman Janet Zink, it was all over in about three minutes. The man, Alexander Ortega, was quickly surrounded and taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation. He wasn't armed, and the only danger, it sounds like, was to himself.

But the fact is, what the Federal Aviation Administration referred to as an “airport pedestrian event” sounds more to me like, “Holy moly!”

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An apparently disturbed man scaled an 8-foot security fence topped with barbed wire and got too close for comfort to an airplane filled with people. Boeing 737s typically seat about 135 passengers.

We don't want to make too big of a deal about this.

We don't want to make too little, either.

“Our airport is safe,” Zink said. “I would say our system worked.”

Security breaches, unfortunately, are not uncommon at major airports.

Fence-jumpers caused security scrambles at the Newark and Phoenix airports on Christmas Day last year. It was the fifth time in the past decade that the Phoenix fence has been scaled.

There was the recent case of the kid who sneaked into the wheel well of a jet bound for Hawaii. Or perhaps he sneaked into the baggage compartment and tried to slide down the wheel later. The point is, he sneaked and made it all the way to Hawaii.

And now we see this strangeness close to home.

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Tampa's airport sits on about 3,300 acres. There are multiple security checks, of course, including patrols and cameras; Zink wouldn't say how many.

Even with all that, you might have to make the security fence 20 feet high, electrify it, and place it in the middle of a wide moat with alligators on both sides to keep it completely secure.

Zink said security upgrades are already in the budget, and, of course, that's good.

And the FAA will investigate this “airport pedestrian event” as it should, but what can it really conclude?

Some guy scaled a fence and went someplace he shouldn't. I think it's just the times we live in.

These things are happening more often everywhere around the globe.

That doesn't excuse what happened, but maybe it explains it.

All anyone can do is call the tower, tell them there's a guy standing on the runway and hope the system works.

In this case, it did.

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