US, Europe split over UN efforts to expand airport employee screening

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The United States and Europe are divided over United Nations efforts to expand employee screening at airports, following broader calls to harden airports against threats from their own workers, four sources familiar with the matter said.

The United States, backed by Canada and Australia, opposes the new global standards, which if approved would have all workers screened when entering airports’ restricted areas, while Europe supports the change, said the sources who were not authorized to discuss the private talks.

Washington argues the proposal could increase passenger congestion and costs, and is not demonstrably more effective than its current practice of random screening, watch list vetting and background checks, two of the sources said.

The previously unreported debate comes weeks before global aviation security experts will meet at the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal.

ICAO is consulting countries on its proposal, which stems from global calls in 2016 to boost airport security, through a state letter seen by Reuters.

All airports in Europe and some in the United States already require 100 percent staff screening, though the current minimum standards only mandate random screening.

“It was only subsequent to numerous and very thorough expert deliberations in ICAO that it was decided to propose this evolution,” said ICAO spokesman Anthony Philbin.

ICAO cannot impose rules, but recommends global standards for industry that are later legislated by its 193 member countries.

It’s not clear whether the proposal will be approved, or how much it would cost.

The US Transportation Security Administration is studying the cost and feasibility of carrying out 100 percent screening and said it is evaluating the proposal.

The European Commission, Canadian regulator Transport Canada and Australia’s Department of Home Affairs declined to comment on the proposal, which is private.

Airports Council International (ACI) estimates the proposal would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and might not work for all airports.

“Airports around the world spend $1.8 billion each year to screen all staff, much of which is spent in Europe,” said ACI World Head of Security Nathalie Herbelles. “If the United States and Canada were to adopt 100 percent screening, the global cost will soar further.”

With a more flexible framework, she said money could be invested to help address a wider range of insider threats at airports beyond employees carrying prohibited items.

Seattle Tacoma airport, for example, screens all its workers, but that did not stop a ground service agent from stealing an empty turboplane and crashing it last year.

The proposal also does not specify that employees would be subject to security controls such as watch list vetting, as the current standards do, said one source, a US government official. That could cause some countries to rely too heavily on screening, he said.

Screening, while a key part of deterring smuggling and other criminal activity, is only a small part of airports’ overall security regime, said David BaMaung, director of strategic development for UK-based security and training specialist CAMOR.

“Screening is an important part to maintain the security integrity within an airport,” BaMaung said by email. “However, it is only a small piece of a far larger jigsaw.”

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