Plans for biometric screening seem to have taken a back seat

At times like these, with the Iraq conflict continuing, a failure of security could be a safety disaster. Safety and security have always been inextricably linked in the minds of passengers, despite the fact that accidents are inadvertent events, while a security failure can result in the intentional destruction of an aircraft.

There has been no let-up in the pursuit of improved pre-flight security arrangements, particularly in the USA, but no innovation there in the last year either. The plan to embed memory chips in machine-readable travel documents (MRTD) containing individual digitalised biometric data has gone quiet compared with the push for it a year ago.

This seems to be because there are some doubts as to its cost-effectiveness - for the cost will be huge. Security agencies were hoping that scanning a chipped MRTD would not only reduce the likelihood of identity fraud, but identify people sought by intelligence sources, or recognise criminals, from a massive database. It is beginning to emerge that, at present, there are no biometric technologies with a sufficiently high level of accuracy to check characteristics infallibly against a huge database.

Reducing identity fraud will probably work, however, because if the system can read who a person claims to be and check the embedded biometric data against a real-time scan of the person's face, hand or iris, it does not need a huge database. The question now arises as to whether simply reducing identity document fraud is worth the trouble, because if an intending saboteur is unknown, or cannot be recognised from a worldwide database without a huge number of false alarms, the investment would not be money well spent.

The terrorists who took over the four aircraft used as weapons on 11 September 2001 entered the USA with travel documents that were not fraudulent. It was just not known that they had terrorist intent.

So the plan for digitised MRTDs and the use of biometrics is still going ahead, but it may take longer than planned. Agencies like the International Air Transport Association, the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the US Department of Homeland Security are all waiting to see if biometrics technology can be tuned up to a virtually zero failure/false-alarm rate.

Innocent passengers

At the moment the USA and others are putting their faith in a plan to embed at least two biometric scans for each person in the MRTD chip, which would reduce the chances of people actually being misidentified as criminal or as fit to be detained - a pretty daunting prospect for hapless innocent passengers. At present a combination of facial scan and fingerprint or hand scan seems to be the favourite, but the cost/benefit questions have to be answered.

Meanwhile, as at the end of 2002, the end of 2003 has seen a civil airliner subjected to a close shave with a man-portable air defence system (manpads) surface-to-air missile. Last year it was an Arkia Boeing 757 at Mombasa, where two manpads just missed the aircraft and did not damage it. This year an Airbus A300 freighter - operated by DHL subsidiary European Air Transport - outbound from Baghdad was hit by one and its wingtip set on fire. The crew, by acting fast to land back at Baghdad, saved themselves and their aircraft, but it was a close-run thing. The Israelis are working, not only on fitting their entire civil airline fleet with countermeasures systems, but on a system for identifying "risk" manpads launch areas in the vicinity of airports that their aircraft use, so security forces would know how best to carry out area surveillance as efficiently as possible. That is relatively easy for a small nation with a small airline industry, but the dilemmas remain for nations which have a large number of large airlines.

The airlines can only take limited comfort from a study of the recent history of manpads use against transport aircraft (Flight International, 2-8 December). Missiles do not distinguish between civil and military transport aircraft, and there have been 26 known attacks on those two aircraft categories, of which 19 have been fatal. But only one was perpetrated using a manpads outside a known conflict zone and that was the Arkia event, where both missiles missed their target.

The DHL A300 was in a conflict zone where a known large supply of former Iraqi military manpads is known to exist. Most nations' policies of using intelligence to warn of high-risk areas to which airline services should be suspended will have to continue, and so will research on cost-effective countermeasures systems for civil aircraft.

Source: Flight International