Government eyes IT to counter airline terror

The Government is in talks to introduce technology to automate airline passenger screening and fast-track the immigration...

The Government is in talks to introduce technology to automate airline passenger screening and fast-track the immigration process, in order to tighten in-flight and airport security.

Discussions with airline industry IT supplier Sita have been given fresh impetus following the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Sita's passenger screening technology would use an existing industry network from Sita to automate the collection and sharing of basic passenger information between airlines and relevant departments including immigration. The information would be processed after the ticket is booked and before passengers arrive at the airport.

Sita's passenger screening application, i-Borders, would allow the UK immigration department to use its resources more effectively to pinpoint potential security risks when vetting passengers. It also has the potential to improve customer service and pave the way for online visa processing, analysts suggest. Passenger information is exchanged between airlines and government departments in many ways, including by fax.

If the Government commits to introducing the new system it could be trialled within the next year, according to Sita before being rolled out across UK airports and Government departments.

However, the Government has not yet committed to introducing the system and questions remain about who would pay for it to be rolled out to the UK's airports.

The Sita application is already rolled out in Australia, where it was used for the Sydney Olympic Games last year to process advanced passenger information more effectively.

UK tourist bodies welcomed the initiative as a way to restore public confidence in the airline industry and encourage more visitors to the UK. "We welcome anything that increases efficiency, particularly in the light of recent world events," said a spokeswoman for the British Tourist Authority.

Analysts said the proposed passenger screening service had far-reaching benefits.

"This is genuinely good stuff," said Mark Raskino, research director for the business management research group at IT analyst firm Gartner. "The collection of basic information such as tracking people and what they do is much more important than exotic technology such as iris recognition."

But despite the obvious benefits of the new technology, politically sensitive issues, such as its installation costs, still have to be negotiated.

Airlines are slashing costs in response to the slump in passenger demand and BA has ordered its IT department to find £45m in cost savings over the next 18 months.

"[Airlines] are checking any expenditure with a fine-toothed comb," said Raskino.

"Is the government going to say that it will pay for the new systems or will airlines have to introduce [and pay for] it?"

The immigration department at the Home Office was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press.

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