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MISSING MAS FLIGHT: Airports in region tighten security

Publication Date : 11-03-2014


Several airports in the region have begun tightening their security procedures after two passengers were discovered to have used stolen passports to board a missing Malaysia Airlines flight, raising questions about the level of security at busy airports.

Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are reviewing their procedures to weed out fake passports while China and Indonesia said their systems were already secure.

Singapore's Immigration and Checkpoints Authority did not respond by press time to queries on whether they have ordered stricter checks at Changi Airport.

Although there is no link yet between the imposters and the disappearance of the Beijing-bound jetliner MH 370 on Saturday, news of their presence on board have set off alarm bells.

Interpol said in a statement that its database has records of more than 40 million missing travel documents, but complained that few countries use it as a matter of course.

Neither Malaysia nor any other country had checked the two stolen passports against the Interpol database.

Reuters quoted an Interpol spokesman as saying that a check of all documents used to board MH 370 had revealed more "suspect passports", but did not give details.

"Essentially this case is exposing fundamental enforcement and investigation gaps that take place daily in this region," says Justin Gosling, a security consultant and former Interpol officer based in Bangkok.

Malaysia's civil aviation authority has refused to give a description of the two men caught on the CCTV as they checked in and boarded the flight.

Experts say the lapse at Kuala Lumpur International Airport could be due to human error rather than a systemic security flaw. Still, they said, the episode raised concerns over a thriving fake documents industry and the under-use of available resources like Interpol's database.

One Asian-based expert, specialising in aviation and counter terrorism, said security in this part of the world is generally good.

"Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are regional hubs and maintain good standards," said the expert, who asked not to be named.

"This does, however, expose a weakness - of humans exercising instant judgments."

Indonesian aviation analyst Dudi Sudibyo said that given the volume of passengers that airports handle, it was sometimes not practical to check every passport against the database.

Associate Professor Joseph Liow, who is with Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said it was unclear if all airlines had access to the Interpol database.

"It appears that the information is available but the question is access. It's not clear if it's easily accessible to the airlines as well as national agencies of the various countries," he said.
On Sunday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered a review of airport security procedures, while the Philippines said it was doing the same.

The official Chinese agency Xinhua quoted Dinh Viet Thang, deputy chief of the Civil Aviation Administration as saying that Vietnam was now on the first level of a three-level security alert system.

Cambodia also said it would tighten security at airports, according to Xinhua news agency.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), however, said its airport security was already strong.

"Airport security here is implemented strictly and systematically," CAAC chief Li Jiaxiang told reporters on Sunday.

Civil Aviation Management Institute of China professor Diao Weimin said: "Verifying passports is a challenge for any country's immigration authorities having to deal with travellers for some 200 countries daily.

"Errors are inevitable, but still the difficulty in spotting the two Asians carrying European passports is deemed low, and failure to stop them is a mistake on the part of Malaysia," he said.

Indonesia also saw no immediate need to tighten security protocols, as a centralised immigration database already flags Indonesians travelling with stolen or suspect passports.

Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said in a statement that this was a security issue, and the matter is in the hands of the authorities.

*Additional reporting by Nirmal Ghosh, Kor Kian Beng, Zakir Hussain and Raul Dancel


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