ABU DHABI // Aviation authorities may add security measures, including body-imaging machines, at airports and introduce background checks that can be made when passengers book or checks in for their flight. The far-reaching proposals were discussed yesterday at the beginning of a two-day Regional Civil Aviation Security Conference, hosted in the capital by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). The conference brings together international security and aviation experts for discussions on how to confront new threats to air travel.
A thousand full-body scanners for uncovering bombs concealed under clothing are to arrive in US airports by the end of 2011. Such imaging machines could appear in the Emirates even sooner, said Saif al Suwaidi, the director general of the GCAA. "I think we will be able to install the first batch before the end of this year," he said. Authorities are still reviewing the technology for potential concerns about radiation.
"We don't have full information on the side effects on using those kinds of equipment on frequent flyers," he said. The scanners have been met with debate abroad, as they are powerful enough to detect smuggled goods in revealing full-body images. In her keynote speech to delegates,Janet Napolitano, the US Secretary of the department of homeland security, referred to the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The Nigerian suspect failed to detonate explosives sewed to his underwear.
"The attempted attack on December 25 ... has served as a catalyst for all to revisit the issue of civil aviation and security," Ms Napolitano said. "It showed us clearly that someone who can carry a bomb on board a plane in one corner of the world can threaten people across continents and across time zones." A global response from the aviation community was necessary, said Sultan al Mansouri, the Minister of Economy and Chairman of the GCAA. "If we're all in it together, we should act together," he said. "Gatherings like this remind each of us how connected we are, despite the separation of national boundaries."
Advances in bomb-making must be met with next-generation solutions, especially as Abu Dhabi and Dubai become popular international transit hubs, Mr al Mansouri said. "Today's reality is that terrorist threats have shifted significantly from conventional explosive devices to modern binary explosives, which are more difficult to detect." Ms Napolitano acknowledged concerns about compromising civil liberties.
"All countries have unique legal traditions, cultural differences and political realities," Ms Napolitano observed. "I believe we should not allow these differences to keep us from working towards a common goal and an even stronger partnership with respect to security and privacy." She also urged other nations, including the UAE, to act assertively by collecting and analysing passenger data as part of an Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) programme already in place in some Gulf countries and European states.
"This is a powerful tool," she said, adding that one-third of cases of those denied entry to the US on terrorism grounds last year were based on APIS data. Such a system is under review in the Emirates, said Aws al Khanjari, the director of the GCAA's department of aviation security. "We have a lot of technology available at the airports, but those are like the last safety nets," he said. "With APIS, we're thinking proactive. Way in advance."
He could not say when it might be implemented. Personal information could be pulled once a reservation is logged or when passengers check in. Airlines can get a directive based on assessments of whether that person is a potential terrorist threat. "We need to actually determine a threat before the passenger takes a boarding card," Mr Khanjari said. "Before that time, a decision has already been made on whether he is a threat or not."
Implementing the system here would require co-operation from multiple stakeholders. "We have to get them in consent with what the system is, what type of information there is, how the information will flow from point A to point Z," Mr Khanjari said. "The last thing you want to do is take a decision not based on accurate information. The public's well-being is our number one concern." The regional civil aviation security conference ends today, with the signing of a Joint Declaration on Civil Aviation Security.
The GCAA projected that airports in the Emirates will process 60 million passengers this year.