PSI: Parking security issues found at Charlotte airport

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - New safety and security questions are being raised at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.  A WBTV investigation found evidence of several abandoned cars at the airport.  Some have been left for months, even years.

The airport has been under increased scrutiny following the airplane stowaway death of Charlotte teenager Delvonte Tisdale.  There have also been reports of thefts and other breeches of the airport's perimeter in recent months.  A report from Charlotte Mecklenburg Police sites a lack of staffing as a potential contributing factor to some of the security lapses.

The latest issue of abandoned cars was first brought to WBTV's attention through a tip from an airline employee back in early December.  The employee said they had noticed a Nissan Quest minivan in a handicapped parking spot in the hourly lot directly in front of the terminal.  It had been there for weeks and the employee said they had reported it to airport police.

The van has no license plate, a flat front right tire and while the doors are locked the keys are in the ignition.  It turns out the van has been there for more than 250 days.

"I would say that car has been abandoned," said Airport Director Jerry Orr.

Airport policy says cars should not be parked for more than 30 days unless the owner alerts the airport.  So, why hadn't the vehicle been moved?

"Well, it's hard to get cars out of the deck," said Orr. "But it should have been moved my now, yes."

It's not only one.  WBTV drove around the hourly and daily lots and in the matter of an hour found several long-resting vehicles.  Some covered in dust so thick people have scribbled in it. One vehicle said "gone to Mexico."  Another said "guess how long it's been here?"

On some you don't have to guess how long it's been there.  The parking ticket drivers get when they enter the lot are sitting in the dash.  We found two that date back to 2009 and one goes all they way back to November 2007.

Orr calls it an oversight.

"Any oversight concerns me," said Orr. "But not from a security perspective because I don't think a car in the parking lot is a security threat."

Ron Moore a sometimes controversial and often critical former Transportation Security Administration agent disagrees.

"There's a right way to do this and a wrong way to do this," said Moore. "And this is the wrong way."

Moore says one of the first lessons of security is to watch out for someone who could be testing safety procedures.

"If we're going to be concerned about unattended bags than we need to be concerned about unattended vehicles," said Moore.

Vehicles have been used in airport bombings in Europe.  The TSA recently launched a program to train parking lot attendants to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.  Things could predate an attack by days, or even months.

"It's not that we're paranoid, or that we're afraid," said Moore. "It's that we are vigilant and there's a difference."

WBTV tried to be vigilant.  A producer reported the minivan to airport police way back in January.  Pointing out the tire was flat, the vehicle had no license plate and the keys were in the ignition.

"Anyone with any training would see that immediately," said Moore.

Orr insists these vehicles are no more a threat than a car that pulled in today, but he admits those sitting cars should be towed.

"It troubles me that we haven't done what we are supposed to be doing, yes," said Orr.

Orr said all the cars in question have been vetted and checked out, but the airport later told us five of the cars still haven't been moved because more information is being gathered.

Three of the cars we identified have been towed and one was picked up by its owner.

The minivan in the handicapped spot is still there in front of the airport.  Officials now say there is a dispute over ownership of the vehicle.

WBTV spent four months roaming the parking decks.  We repeatedly checked on these vehicles, walking around them, looking in windows and writing down information. Not once did airport security every approach to ask what we were doing.

CMPD reports 13 auto thefts from the airport in 2010.  There were also 135 larcenies. Auto thefts were up 30% and larcenies were up 16% from 2009 numbers.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.