Aviation border security in spotlight as countries open skies for flights

By Patience Ukama

As most African countries start resuming flights following widespread lockdowns, COVID-19 risk reduction measures are top of the agenda for aviation security officials. Kenyan airlines have already opened up both pan-African and international flights to regions including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Senegal and Britain; amongst others.

In many African countries, planning is underway to upgrade airport security and border controls for passenger screening and movement tracking. Recent events, however, have highlighted that health concerns are not the only risk facing the aviation industry.

Suspected terrorist Auerbacher Marius Falk, was arrested at Senegal’s Blaise Diagne International airport on 13 September 2020. The German citizen had an outstanding international warrant of arrest for his detention, as is wanted by both Germany and Interpol for alleged terrorist activities. He had been travelling under a false identity, with his passport stating that he was a Vietnamese pilot. His arrest came as a result of the airport’s security system alerting officials that he was a suspected dangerous fugitive wanted by international criminal policing authorities.

His arrest was a win for Senegalese border security, however, what is concerning is that he had been travelling to other countries across Africa while on the run, and had alluded capture throughout his cross-continental journeys. Countries he has been linked to include Tanzania, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, South Africa and Kenya (where he reportedly got married). This leads to questions on the integrity of airport security systems in African countries, including Kenya.

African aviation security has been a major concern for a number of years. The issue was brought to the fore with more urgency following the reported hijacking of an Egyptian airlines flight in 2016. Commenting on the issue, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (African Union Commission Chairperson at the time), stated “Civil aviation is especially vulnerable to terrorist attacks as its operations are largely in the air rather than on the solid ground. The level of fatalities in each air crash as a result of either safety flaws or terrorist activities is the highest compared to the other transport modes”.

Clearly there is an urgent need for more advanced information systems as part of airport border security controls. Aviation authorities need to investigate and implement border control systems and advanced threat analysis technologies with data-analytics that are able to detect potential threats when it comes to illegal travellers. This is both for immigration and criminal activity alerting purposes. Specialised algorithm and passenger information-based systems are able to flag high-risk individuals at both arrival and departure points, and can immensely improve national security levels for countries that use such border control mechanisms.

The technology already exists and it is effective, as the Senegal airport arrest proves. It is up to aviation authorities and border control officials to assess the very real terrorist threats posing risks to national and international security. Particularly as Kenya, and the African continent at large, look to increased travel and tourism to help overcome the negative economic impacts of the global health crisis, air travel is a key component to boosting tourism and investment returns. What’s more is that advanced passenger identity verification and health screening technologies can be integrated into border checkpoint information systems, allowing for both potential health threats and illegal activity alerting. The need for improved aviation and border control security measures cannot be stressed enough for both the safety and socio-economic well-being of countries at this volatile point in time.

(Patience Ukama is a Communications specialist).

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