An NBC 5 Investigation caught drivers leaving cars abandoned in front of airport terminals at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and police didn't seem to do anything to stop them.
Signs outside the terminals clearly say you can’t leave your car at the curb, but an NBC 5 investigation found drivers still do it even after the airport had a major security scare involving a man who ditched his car at the curb in front of a terminal.
In the months after that incident, NBC 5 Investigates discovered police don’t seem to respond to some abandoned cars right in front of the nation’s fourth busiest airport.
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Undercover video shot by NBC 5 Investigates shows cars sitting empty, again and again, at the curb in front of airport terminals, with no airport police in sight.
“That may indicate that no one’s watching the shop,” said Jeff Price, aviation security expert and author of Practical Aviation Security, a leading textbook on airport security.
Price said an empty car in front of a terminal for more than a few minutes should be treated as a potential threat and checked by police.
“You never want to assume that it’s just a normal situation, so you kind of go into a little bit of condition yellow at this point and start taking a look to see what it could be,” said Price.
An NBC 5 viewer sent photos in from D/FW Airport showing what appear to be unattended cars which sparked NBC 5 Investigates to take a closer look.
During six different days since September, NBC 5 Investigates visited the airport and recorded cellphone video of at least six abandoned vehicles.
In one instance, video captured a grey Honda abandoned at Terminal C, sitting empty for at least 15 minutes right under signs warning it’s a Tow Away Zone.
Another video shot from the curb, inside the terminal, and even across the street, showed an abandoned car. After 10 minutes the driver returns but then walks back into the building, leaving the car unattended for another five minutes.
NBC 5 Investigates spotted a giant delivery truck, empty and sitting double parked, in front of a terminal and a white car left empty for about 20 minutes at Terminal C. Over at Terminal B the driver of an abandoned car finally showed up and acknowledged it was a mistake.
“You want to make sure that you follow the law but sometimes you get caught up in things, I guess,” said driver, Robin Ogutu.
Only once during the six visits did NBC 5 Investigates see a parking ticket on the windshield of an unattended car. Most of the time when NBC 5 Investigates saw empty cars, there was no sign of police or airport parking checkers.
Airport spokesman, David Magana, said they do investigate abandoned cars. In fact, he said D/FW Airport police towed 500 cars from the curb last year and ticketed 2,000 more.
“So there is a lot of work done in that area. Are we getting to every car? No,” said Magana.
Just six months ago, the airport had an embarrassing scare involving a car left at the curb.
Airport police arrested a man for sneaking past a security checkpoint and boarding a plane without a ticket. A police report said officers asked the man how he got to the airport. He told them he drove and "his car was outside on the curb."
The report also said officers then went outside “to locate his vehicle” and found it right in front of Terminal D.
Magana said he's unsure if having more staff to investigate abandoned or parked vehicles would give them a better chance to head-off an incident like the one in July, and that airport police use other methods to identify abandoned cars and determine whether they are a threat besides putting officers on the curb.
Just because NBC 5 did not see officers or parking checkers on scene, "That doesn't necessarily mean that assessment wasn't done," Magana said. Citing security reasons, he declined to elaborate on what those other methods of assessment may be.
D/FW Airport security officials insist the fact that officers were often not visible at the curb is not a staffing issue and said they have enough police to provide adequate security. But D/FW police have a lot to cover, a average of a million passengers a week, 60,000 employees, five terminals, cargo facilities, three hotels on the property, a gas station, restaurants, a freeway running through the airport and a land area the size of Manhattan.
At some airports, security officers are much more visible outside. In Los Angeles they greet drivers as they pull in, directing traffic and watching for trouble. LAX was the target of a failed car bomb plot in 1999. In snowy Chicago they're outside at O'Hare preventing drivers from lingering at the curb.
Even at Dallas Love Field, it's a different story.
NBC 5 Investigates went to Love Field and immediately spotted Dallas police officers patrolling the airport. Shortly after NBC 5 Investigates stopped at the curb, an officer approached the vehicle and asked if we were waiting for a flight to come in. We notified him we were a TV crew and he said we still had to keep moving.
But back at D/FW Airport, video captures a black car driven by NBC 5 Investigates pulling up to the curb. The NBC 5 driver stays in the car the whole time so it's never unattended, but the driver was able to idle at the curb for an hour and 10 minutes.
At one point a parking checker notices NBC 5’s photographer filming the car from on top of the parking garage, across the street from the car, but never asked for the car to be moved.
Magana said right now idling at the curb for more than an hour is within the rules and allowable at D/FW.
When pressed why things were different at other airports, Magana responded that it wasn't fair to be compared to other airports. He said intelligence gathered by D/FW Airport police shows there are more pressing security threats than unattended or idling cars, but they won't say what they are.
When asked if the airport will do anything to re-evaluate security at the curb, Magana said, “We're constantly re-evaluating every piece of our security plan every day.”
Price believes cars left in front of airports may deserve more attention from police. He worries this potential threat has not gotten much attention in recent years since there has not been a recent bomb attack on a U.S. Airport.
“I think it's fallen off the radar for a couple of reasons -- one is it hasn't successfully happened yet,” said Price. “We're starting to lose focus again we're starting to take our eye off the ball."