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(photo credit: Kfir Sivan/Yisrael Sun)
As international aviation officials look to Israel for techniques to safeguard air travel after the failed Christmas Day bombing, Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday launched a biometric security system for outbound passengers, heralding a new era of hi-tech passenger screening.
The Unipass Airport Management System, developed by the Israel Airports Authority, is initially being tested on El Al Matmid Frequent Flyer Club members, before being gradually expanded to include, within two years, all departing passengers who voluntarily register, the IAA said.
The IAA said the timing of the biometric security program's launch, amid heightened international air travel security following the al-Qaida terrorist plot to blow up a US airliner over Detroit last month, was purely coincidental.
The IAA refused to address the issue of passenger profiling, saying instead that the Unipass system will offer improved service and security, and an identical screening process for all passengers.
"This is the first system of its kind in the world. Interest has been expressed by other international airports," an IAA spokeswoman said.
It was too soon say how much time the new arrangement will save, the spokeswoman added, but once it becomes fully operational, the system is expected to significantly speed up the security and check-in processes.
In the first stage, passengers will arrive at a registration desk, where a machine will scan their passports, and take fingerprint and facial imaging samples to create a biometric signature.
The information will then be stored on a personal smart card that will be issued to each passenger. The registration is a one-time process.
Equipped with their smart cards, passengers can then proceed to the first security stand, where they will be asked to swipe their cards and passports through the machine. As the computer confirms a biometric match, a touch screen panel will present the passengers with a series of security questions that until now were asked by airport personnel.
Guards will stand next to the stands to help anyone who runs into difficulties, the IAA said.
"We're not giving up on human interaction," the spokeswoman said. "If any of the questions receive incorrect answers, or the system reports a problem, passengers will be taken aside by a guard for an in-depth check, before being allowed to proceed."
The luggage X-ray machine is the next stop, and passengers will once again swipe their Unipass cards through a scanner to inform the system that they have passed the first stage of security.
After the luggage is scanned, passengers will go to the airline's check-in desk, where the smart card will again be swiped, prompting a message to appear on the clerk's computer screen that the passenger has passed through all security stages.
Once check-in is completed, the hand luggage scanning stage takes place, where travelers once again swipe their cards before continuing on to border control, the duty free stores and boarding.
The IAA already allows passengers to circumvent Border Control passport checks with a biometric fingerprint scanner, and says it plans to soon replace Border Control with the Unipass system for registered passengers.
Additionally, the IAA said passengers would soon be able to forgo sending their suitcases through the X-ray machine in the departure hall prior to checking in, thanks to a new system called Hold Baggage Screening.
"Passengers registered on the Unipass system will take their luggage directly to check-in, and from there the suitcases will be passed through comprehensive security before being loaded on the plane," the IAA spokeswoman said.
"I have no doubt that this system will significantly decrease waiting time for the various security checks," IAA director-general Kobi Mor said.
The IAA said the biometric information stored on Unipass computers would be fully secure and could not be accessed by outsiders.â€¢