I am a passenger
Before you even make it to the airport, though, wheels are already in motion to keep you safe. A Boeing “Triple Seven” can carry up to 451 people – and to the border controls and governments of the world each one is a potential terrorist.
Airlines are required to provide info about everyone on their manifest, via a secure network, up to 72 hours before arrival. Called “Advanced Passenger Information”, or “Secure Flight”, the system determines an individual’s risk based on full name, date of birth, gender, nationality and travel documents. This data is compared with domestic “watch” lists and an Interpol database that lists lost or stolen travel papers, accessed by 190 countries.
Passports and documents are then flagged ahead of time – along with those who have a one-way reservation, have paid cash, or who book on the day of their flight – and agents at the departure gate are prompted to stop the passenger or stamp a code on their boarding pass that will lead to a more stringent secondary check, usually at the security gates. In the case of the US, if the letters SSSS (secondary security screening selection) appear on your pass, you should brace yourself for a rubber glove handshake as you travel towards the departure lounge.
However, surveillance standards do differ from country to country. Indeed, when the passengers of MH370 were checked in detail after the flight went missing, it was discovered that two Iranian nationals were flying on stolen documents.
“It’s likely the stolen passports went unnoticed because the tickets were for continuing travel to Amsterdam,” reveals Professor Brian Havel, director of the International Aviation Law Institute. “If China had been required to issue visas, they probably would have been red flagged in Kuala Lumpur or Beijing. However, it’s possible that border control assumed they would be checked in China, who in turn passed responsibility to the Netherlands, by which time it was too late.”
This is not a one-off occurence, either. According to Interpol, few of its member nations actually access its stolen passport database and an estimated one billion passengers flew without having their passports screened last year alone. This is why further checks are essential.