"Airlines operate in an extremely competitive market. There had to be trade-offs. Security technology was one of them." These are the words of a former IT executive at a major airline, speaking to The Independent on Sunday a week after the terrorist attacks on America. It is now clear that no expense should be spared to improve security and prevent terrorists boarding aeroplanes. The airline industry is now turning to sophisticated technology for solutions.
One objective is to get legitimate passengers checked in quickly, allowing airline security staff and Customs officials more time to concentrate on identifying criminals. One system on trial would give passenger verification at the glance of an eye by scanning the iris unique to each person. A US firm, Eye Ticket, is developing the technology already used in Frankfurt to check airport employees. It hopes to install a system at Heathrow later this year to scan passengers.
Technology may be able to help the industry, but it also introduces security threats. One former airline insider, who asked not to be named, says there are two critical weaknesses in airline technology that could be exposed by terrorists and criminals.
The first is an international network of computers that provides travel agents with up-to-the-minute information on flights, car hire, hotels, railways and ferry lines. The Global Distribution System (GDS) links 185,000 travel agents around the world. The source says terrorists could infiltrate this system and steal people's travel details to board a plane illegally.
Access to the system wouldn't be through computer hacking, because the hardware and software running the GDS is understood to be very secure. The threat, say airline experts, comes from the thousands of access points to the system on computer terminals in the offices of travel agents.
The second chink in the technology armoury of airlines is "e-booking", which allows customers to arrange flights over the internet. Over the past two years most big airlines have been keen to embrace e-booking because it saves millions by doing away with handling tickets. For customers booking by internet saves waiting time at the airport because they need to carry only a form of identification to board an aeroplane. In Britain, identification is usually the passport because most flights are international. But in the US, where domestic flights are frequent and only 7 per cent of the 274 million citizens own a passport, other forms of identification are used, including state-issued driving licences with photographs.
"This system is wide open to abuse," said one airline insider. "Sophisticated criminals can easily create fake IDs and hack into the internet." In response to these concerns, United Airlines and American Airlines temporarily suspended sales of tickets on the internet last week.
But these conveniences do not have to be doomed. Both security threats could be thwarted by the technology of one US firm, Visionics, which makes software that can recognise facial features and patterns. It can also be used both to check the authenticity of an identification document and to check a passport photo with the face of the person holding it, removing the possibility of human error.
The technology has many other applications. It is already used in Iceland, where the faces of persons milling around the airport are scanned and compared with a database of known terrorists. It is also used in the centre of Birmingham, where CCTV cameras can spot the facial features of known criminals in the crowd.
All these schemes still require baggage to be checked through Customs. In the future, officials will move away from worrying about excess alcohol and tobacco, and focus on security. "Customs needs to abandon the idea that it is there to raise revenue; it should be there for security," says a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association.
The airports of the future could be packed with technological gizmos that speed check-in times and increase detection rates of potentially dangerous characters. Rather than responding to "Anything to declare?" a passenger will pass their bodies, bags and identification through a series of gadgets that check for threatening signs.
Smiths Group, the UK engineering firm, already has a small subsidiary which makes machines which scan baggage for trace elements of explosives and drugs. Now the company is developing a passenger walk-through system that can detect traces of chemical warfare agents, explosives and narcotics. The machines, costing £92,000 each, could be combined with a metal-detector system to speed more secure passenger flow at airports.
QinetiQ, the government-owned company which has researched and developed security-related equipment for the Ministry of Defence for decades, believes it may have improved weapon detection still further. A scanner developed by QinetiQ and now on the market that can detect metal, ceramic or wood weapons anywhere on the body. "What it actually does is see through clothes and take a picture," says Andrew Middleton, the company's head of knowledge and information systems. "It's very like X-ray specs."
The technology can look one centimetre under the skin and Mr Middleton says with more development it may be able to do a deeper scan , using radar technology to check whether weapons have been concealed where the sun doesn't shine. The company is compiling a dossier of ways to improve airport security that it intends to hand to the Federal Aviation Administration in the US.
But all of these technologies are based on good intelligence on who the suspected terrorists are. Technology could also help in this area, allowing security services to collate, record and retrieve information more swiftly. "Research is also being done on how information can be managed and disseminated effectively to those who need it when they need it," says Colin Nash, business manager at QinetiQ's consulting division on internet defence.
Paul Edwards, a corporate financier at Quarterdeck Investment Partners, which specialises in the aerospace and defence sectors, predicts that there will be two new buzz phrases in the world of security technology: "Intelligence inter-operability" and "Intelligence data fusion". The former means enabling different agencies, including military, police and intelligence services, around the world to share information through technology. The latter means pulling together the different strands of information so if an immigration officer finds a person with traces of explosives in or on their baggage, and the police recently found explosives in a house associated with that person, both can know about it very quickly.
The prospects for making air travel secure through technology are good. But ultimately security boils down to airlines and airports services knowing more about each passenger, which will inevitably throw up many civil liberties issues.
Ultimately, the police and the security services must provide better information on who are the dangerous people, to support most of the future technology systems.