First, the good news. India’s domestic air traffic during Jan-Oct 2017 grew at a whopping 16.6 per cent, making it one of the fastest-growing domestic markets in the world. International traffic has been growing steadily at around 9.8 per cent. At this rate, India has the potential to become the third-largest aviation market behind the US and China.
Now, the not-so-good news. Almost all our top airports are choked during peak hours or are about to be soon. The rising congestion at airports often leads to frayed tempers and general unpleasantness.
The CISF, providing security at 59 leading airports of the country, has a tough balancing act to perform. There is pressure to expedite the security process without compromising on security. On the other hand, the sophistication and determination of the modern day criminal is rising. There have been terror attacks in several European airports in the last two years. The CISF has been successful in keeping Indian airports incident free. One terror attack can push the fast-growing Indian aviation and tourism industries back by several years. All these enhance the need to bring in the latest technologies and best practices to enhance the “ease of doing air travel”.
Recent months have seen a tremendous improvement in airport security processes. One of the most popular has been the elimination of hand baggage tags. After the installation of HD cameras and other infrastructure, the tags are gone in 29 airports and are likely to go in another 14. This may extend to all airports. Consequently, cross-checking of boarding passes and security stamps at the boarding gates of the said 29 airports have also been done away with.
The Automated Tray Retrieval System (ATRS) being tried at Delhi and Bengaluru airports can be a game-changer. A suspicious bag is automatically segregated by the screener for physical checking on a different roller, out of reach of the passenger. As a vast majority of air travellers are corporate executives travelling with one piece of hand baggage. India’s first express security check facility for such passengers has been implemented at Hyderabad airport’s domestic terminal. Efforts are on to implement this system at all major airports.
Passengers often lose personal belongings at airports due to negligence or theft. In 2016, missing items worth over Rs 38 crore were located by the CISF and shared on its website. If a lost item is reported within one hour of loss, the CISF offers immediate search assistance by way of CCTV analysis. As for differently-abled passengers, during security checks, visual inspection and hand-held explosive trace detector (ETD) will be used and only in rare cases will CISF request the passenger to remove their prosthetics. This is a positive development.
The Montreal-headquartered Airport Council International (ACI) runs an Airport Service Quality (ASQ) rating programme across 200 airports in over 50 countries. In 2016, the security-related ASQ ratings at six Indian metros fared better than Washington, Heathrow, Paris, Dubai, Los Angeles and Frankfurt airports , which is a matter of pride.
While the efforts of CISF are laudable, more reforms are needed. For instance, a biometrics-based automated access control should be installed on an urgent basis. The passenger’s PNR should be linked to the Aadhaar and allow her to go all the way to the aircraft with automated e-gates. Baggage drop should be automated to cut the huge queues at check-in counters. Full-body scanners are being tested at Delhi airport. Once they are installed, manual frisking should be done away with, except for suspicious cases.
The CISF needs to build a system of profiling based on Machine Learning (ML) to identify suspicious persons from the time the ticket is booked. Once a robust biometric system is in place, the first check-point could be on the approach road to the airport, 500 metres away from the passenger terminal. Thereafter, video analytics tools can help tag and track such persons all throughout their movement to and within the airport. This helps block a potential terrorist away from the passenger terminal, where he can inflict far more damage.
For low-cost airports, especially under the Regional Connectivity Scheme, the National Civil Aviation Policy (NCAP 2016) talks of aircraft-centric security instead of airport-centric security. This is practical and can lead to a significant reduction in the manpower deployment at such airports. Lastly, given its rich experience, the CISF should look at global opportunities for providing security services and consulting.
Aviation security in India needs to be low-cost, efficient and impregnable. Technology and behavioural training are the key. CISF personnel have brought professionalism and empathy into aviation security. With the various reforms processes currently underway, security standards at Indian airports are likely to be absolutely world class. We’ll get there.
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