Mixed response to U.S. demand for more airline security

Monday, January 4, 2010 - 1:18pm

LONDON – Airline passengers bound for the United States faced a hodgepodge of security measures across the world Monday, but most European airports did not appear to be following a new U.S. demand for increased screening of passengers from 14 countries.

U.S. officials in Washington said the new security measures would be implemented Monday but there were few visible changes on the ground in Europe, which sends thousands of passengers on hundreds of daily flights to the United States.

In addition, few if any changes in airline procedures were reported in the 14 countries named by the U.S. as security risks, although officials in Saudi Arabia said extra security personnel had been placed at the airport.

No changes were seen Monday at international airports in Syria, Algeria, Libya or Lebanon, four other countries on the list.

"Everything is the same, there is no extra security," an aviation official in Lebanon said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The changes ordered by President Barack Obama's administration followed the arrest of a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to set off an explosive device on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab is at a federal prison in Milan, Michigan and faces a court hearing on Friday.

The new rules led to long security lines in Nigeria at Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport, where some travelers were told to show up more than seven hours ahead of their Delta Air Lines direct flight to Atlanta.

"Whatever it takes to keep passengers safe, I'm all for it," said Emeka Ojukwu, 46, a Nigerian who now lives in New York state. "It's really a bad rap for the country. This is the last thing Nigeria needs."

Asian airports had already ratcheted up security following the Christmas Day attack, but those in South Korea and Pakistan took additional measures.

Yet Europe remains the key crossroads for air travelers heading to the United States, with over 800 scheduled trans-Atlantic flights a day in 2009, especially from major hubs like London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport was using 15 full-body scanners on flights to the U.S. and Dutch officials announced Monday they will buy 60 more scanners. In Oslo, U.S.-bound passengers had to show their passports and boarding passes twice at the gate, get their carry-ons searched and go through full body pat-downs.

Yet other European nations were still studying the new U.S. rules.

In Britain, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation said he was still trying to decipher its practical implications. He refused to give his name due to the sensitivity of the subject.

His comments were echoed by officials in Germany, France and Switzerland, who said no new measures had been taken since airport security was increased following the failed Christmas Day attack.

French airport officials said the changes will not be implemented until they are ordered by the French government.

In Spain, U.S.-bound passengers from countries on the new watch list were not being singled out for body frisks, a security official admitted, speaking on condition on anonymity in line with agency rules.

At London's busy Heathrow Airport, management consultant James MacDonald said before boarding a flight to Denver that he would not mind an extra wait if it enhanced flight security.

"I can understand why if you're from Pakistan or whatever it would make it even worse," said MacDonald, a 52-year-old American. "On the other hand, if it's a question of safety, I really don't see any argument there."

U.S. authorities said as of Monday anyone traveling from or through nations regarded as state sponsors of terrorism — as well as "other countries of interest" — will be required to go through enhanced screening. The Transportation Security Administration said those techniques included full-body pat-downs, carry-on bag searches, full-body scanning and explosive detection technology.

The U.S. State Department lists Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism. The U.S. said other countries whose passengers should face enhanced screening include Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.

Nationals from those countries already require a visa to enter the United States.

Iraq's international airport in Baghdad already has extremely tight security, with dogs sniffing luggage and passengers getting patted even down before they can enter the airport.

In Nigeria, a minister said the government would perform whatever security checks the U.S. government requested.

"It is for the good of everybody that everybody is searched thoroughly," Information Minister Dora Akunyili said. But she questioned Nigeria's inclusion on the list, saying Abdulmutallab had lived and studied abroad for years.

"It is unfair to discriminate against 150 million Nigerians over the behavior of one person," Akunyili said. "It is outside of the shores of this country that he developed this nasty tendency to do what he tried to do."

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the extra U.S. security demands could further alienate travelers from Muslim countries.

"There is already concern amongst Arabs and Muslims who feel they are being targeted at airports," he said.

At Heathrow, Hamid Darizadeh, a Briton of Iranian origin, said the new restrictions would unfairly penalize a huge swath of people and added that Iranians already received extra attention when traveling.

"By doing this, you basically turn someone into a suspect just because they have the wrong color passport," he said, smoking outside the Terminal 3 building.

There is no European-wide consensus yet on the need for full-body scanners — which are being sought in Britain by Prime Minister Gordon Brown — but European Union officials said the issue will be raised at a special security meeting soon.

Some travelers thought privacy concerns about full-body scanners were overrated.

"Privacy can be easily sacrificed in the name of security," said Mauro Forno, a 46-year-old tourist who flew into Rome from Genoa with his family. "Nudity is not a problem for anybody at the beach."

The world's airline pilots welcomed the new security measures demanded by the U.S., noting that they had not created massive flight delays like those seen after the 9/11 attacks.

"We want the bad guys kept away from airplanes," said Gideon Ewers, spokesman for the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations (IFALPA). "We firmly as believe that intelligence gathering and interdiction of potential terrorists is the way to protect aircraft and the flying public."

The Israel Airports Authority declined to discuss security arrangements at Ben-Gurion International airport, considered one of the safest in the world.

In Jordan, a key U.S. ally, an official at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport said "enhanced techniques" were being applied, especially in screening passengers bound for the United States. He declined to elaborate.

U.S.-bound passengers had to go through additional security before boarding flights in Seoul, and officials there compiled lists of "suspicious" passengers to monitor based on their nationalities, travel patterns and ticket purchases.

Pakistan's national airline said it began intensifying security checks Jan. 1 for U.S.-bound passengers, including full body searches, even though Pakistan has no direct flights to the United States.

"It is beyond my imagination what more they could do," said Nadim Umer, 40, a Karachi-based linen merchant who said he was strip-searched when he arrived in New York last June. "Those who are dying to go to America at any cost can put up with all this inhuman behavior, but I cannot."

Comments News Comments

Post new Comment