Airlines test out 'clean' lists

US and British refine passenger 'profiling' methods post-9/11.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Airlines are devising a new way of classifying their passengers, and it has nothing to do with first class or cattle class.

In tomorrow's security-conscious world, you will either volunteer personal information in advance to the airline you want to fly on - and get onto a "clean" list once your details are verified - or submit to lengthy questioning each time you board a plane.

US and British airlines are pioneering schemes - introduced since Sept. 11 - that allow their regular fliers who are on the computer to go straight through security with just a glance at an iris-identification machine.

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Everyone else, increasingly is likely to have to go through the sort of "profiling" procedure that spotted alleged terrorist Richard Reid as a possible security threat before French police allowed him onto the flight from Paris to Miami. He is said to have tried to blow up that flight with a bomb in his shoe.

Racial profiling is outlawed in many US states. An Arab American member of President Bush's Secret Service detail is suing American Airlines for refusing him permission to fly with his handgun on Christmas Day, alleging that it was his ethnic origin that set off alarm bells.

But the FAA makes security profiling obligatory for all US international carriers.

The biggest firm in the profiling business is International Consultants for Targeted Security (ICTS), an Israeli company based in Holland whose employees at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris found Mr. Reid so suspicious as he sought to board a Dec. 21 American Airlines flight that they turned him over to the French police. The police did not find Reid's name on a list of suspects, and his papers were in order, so they allowed him to fly the next day.

ICTS has contracts with more than 100 airlines worldwide, including many of the big US and European carriers, and employs 5,000 people at 50 airports in 12 European countries, according to Zamir Eldar, head of European operations for ICTS.

The company will not disclose the details of its profiling procedure, but the goal is "to profile each passenger, to determine whether he is a business or tourist passenger, or a potential terrorist," says Mr. Eldar.

Before check-in, each passenger on an airline that has contracted ICTS' profiling services is questioned in detail about his or her travel plans. ICTS employees are trained to look especially for passengers who bought their tickets with cash, or recently, who have one-way tickets, or who arrive late for a flight.

Their suspicions are also aroused by passengers who have no luggage to check, or whose baggage does not seem to "fit" - for example a young man who might be expected to carry a backpack, but who is instead carrying an expensive suitcase.

"A lot of it is in the nose," says John Beam, a former head of security for TWA who is now an independent air-safety consultant.

The questioning, based on a procedure developed by Israeli security officials at Tel Aviv airport, is often intrusive. Passengers are expected to give the names of people they have met and places they have visited during their travels, to explain exactly why they are flying, and to say where they have been staying.

Often, the questioning seems racially biased, betraying the security guards' own stereotypes.

"At ICTS," established by former Israeli security experts, "there was a general sense that all terrorists are Palestinians and all Palestinians are terrorists," says Mr. Beam, who hired the company to work with TWA in the 1980s. "Their standards were good, but they had tunnel vision."

The fear that security profiling can easily become racial profiling is behind US Transport Secretary Norman Mineta's refusal so far to institute profiling for all US domestic flights. Mr. Mineta spent time in an internment camp for Americans of Japanese origin during World War II.

It also explains why an airline such as British Airways does not rigorously profile its passengers. "It is very difficult," explains BA spokesman John Lampl. "We carry so many different people from different cultures and all four corners of the world, of every race, color, and creed, and we have to take that into account."

An element of racial profiling is bound to enter into any judgement about the risk a passenger poses, security experts say. "It's something that won't go away," says Beam. But "look who is doing the terrorism right now."

Of the 19 men believed to have carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, all were young Arab Muslim men, which focuses security guards' attention on all young Arab Muslim men when they fly.

"When this kind of population is already targeted as a potential risk it is very hard not to fall into racism," acknowledges Eldar.

One solution, he suggests, is for passengers - especially frequent flyers - to voluntarily put their names on an "approved" list, giving the airline all the details about themselves that they are asked for. They are then identified through biometric means, such as an iris scan, and can skip most security checks when they get to the airport.

ICTS is currently running a pilot project along these lines for Delta Airlines at London's Gatwick airport. And Virgin Atlantic will introduce a similar scheme later this month. "The idea is to put all the people traveling for business or tourism reasons into one safe box, and to put the others aside for the profiling system," says Eldar.

For the time being, the "approved" lists are valid only for specific airports and airlines. Eventually, Eldar envisages carriers and airports worldwide sharing and accepting each others' data, to create a global computerized roster of "safe" passengers.

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