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Janet Napolitano questioned over airline stowaway on Capitol Hill

Janet Napolitano, Secretary for US Homeland Security, faced tough questioning over a runaway teen's fatal airplane ride last year. A Massachusetts congressman asked Janet Napolitano about airport security in the wake of the deadly stowaway incident.

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Feb. 9.

ZUMA Press/Newscom

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U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was pressed for answers Wednesday on how a North Carolina teenager breached airport security and stowed away in the wheel well of a Boston-bound plane.

U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., told Napolitano that the case of 16-year-old Delvonte Tisdale, who died, raises "enormous concerns about aviation safety" in the United States. The newly elected Keating, who investigated Tisdale's death in Massachusetts as the Norfolk County district attorney, said investigators told him Tisdale didn't show up in any airport security video.

"Because if it wasn't this young man that just stowed himself for his own reasons, if that had been a person with more nefarious motivation, think of what would have happened to that 737 commercial airliner or any of the other airliners that were there at that time," Keating said to Napolitano during a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. "It really raised enormous concerns about aviation safety."

Napolitano told the committee that Homeland Security works with local airport authorities and sets standards and requirements for airport perimeters. She said it is up to the local airport authorities to carry out those standards and requirements.

"Clearly, if somebody, a 16-year-old, is able to circumvent those standards and requirements and get into the wheel well of a plane, there has been a breakdown," Napolitano said.

She said the Transportation Security Administration, entrusted with protecting the nation's transportation system, is investigating.

Tisdale died in November after he hid in the wheel well of a US Airways plane on the tarmac at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, in Charlotte, N.C. He plunged several thousand feet to the ground in Milton, Mass., as the Boeing 737 made its descent into Boston.

In a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., Keating said he was concerned that Homeland Security officials have not announced any corrective actions at the airport yet.

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"I appreciate the fact that she clearly admitted there was a major break, but I would have anticipated a response that said, given the time frame, something has already been under way to correct this," Keating said.

TSA northeast region spokeswoman Ann Davis said commercial airports are required to follow approved security plans that include procedures to restrict access to secure areas.

"Airports are responsible for day-to-day enforcement of measures contained in these plans and are regularly inspected by TSA to ensure compliance," Davis said. "We are working with Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which is responsible for perimeter and access control security, to conduct a thorough investigation based on the facts and information provided by law enforcement."

She declined to comment on the investigation.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department spokesman Robert Fey declined to comment on the progress of a local investigation into security concerns raised by the stowaway case. He said he could not say when the investigation would be complete.

A telephone message left at the office of Charlotte Douglas International Airport director Jerry Orr wasn't immediately returned.

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