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Raise bar on airline security, EU told

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
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Dutch to use body scanners
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maker of full-body scanners urges EC to rule on whether devices should be used permanently across 27-nation bloc
  • Experts say millimeter-wave body scanners greatly increase levels of security at airport check-ins
  • Currently they can be used by individual countries but only for between 12 and 18 months for trial periods
  • Scanners have caused controversy over ability to produce "naked" images
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London, England (CNN) -- The maker of full-body scanners has urged the European Commission to rule on whether the controversial devices should be introduced permanently at all 700 commercial airports in the 27-nation bloc.

At the moment, the millimeter-wave body scanners, which many experts say would greatly increase levels of security at airport check-ins, can be used by individual countries but only for between 12 and 18 months for trial periods.

Q&A: How full-body scanners work

Previous attempts to introduce them across the EU were stymied amid concerns about privacy, as the scanners can strip away layers of clothing, accurately mapping the contours of the body, any prosthetics beneath the skin, as well as clothing and metallic and non-metallic objects.

But the December 25 attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger airplane has renewed calls for the introduction of full-body scanners at all major airports.

The Netherlands said Wednesday it was installing the scanners at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, where security staff failed to detect explosives being taken aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253.

Stephen Phipson, president of Smiths Detection, the largest maker in the world of body scanners, X-ray machines and explosive detection devices, said the extra layers of security were expensive, but "what price for peace of mind" for passengers.

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Video: Netherlands now uses body scan
Video: Inside the X-ray

"Individual countries are responsible for their national security," Phipson told CNN's Richard Quest. "If they so choose to under a trial scheme they can introduce different technologies. But the key here is to have a consistent levels of regulation across the whole of the EU and to do that the commission needs to regulate."

On the question of whether a full-body scanner, which costs about $160,000 each, would have detected the explosives that Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, allegedly tried to take aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253, Phipson was emphatic. "The system can detect objects being carried under the clothing that shouldn't be there."

And even with devices or materials sewn into underwear "you would still see something that the operator would recognize that should not be there."

Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst told a news conference at The Hague on Wednesday the millimeter-wave body scanners will be in place at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in about three weeks and will be used on all passengers traveling to the United States.

"We've escaped a very serious attack with serious consequences, but unfortunately in this world there are individuals who do not shy away from attacks on innocent people," ter Horst said.

Nigeria also said it would start to use the devices on airline passengers but did not say when it would begin the new scans. "In combating the new threat of terrorism as unfolded recently, Nigeria will be upgrading its security screening system to 3D Total Body Imaging Scanner," the country's airport authority said in a statement. It gave no further details.

The militant group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the December 25 plot.

Ter Horst said that security measures in place in Amsterdam were metal detectors and X-ray machines, and admitted they could not have picked up the explosive material that AbdulMullatab was allegedly carrying.

"The introduction of these body scanners would certainly have helped in detecting that he was carrying something on his body," she said. "We know that metal detection does not help to detect non-metal explosives, and these millimeter-wave scanners can do this, which would mean that this would be an improvement."

Ter Horst acknowledged that the systems currently in place are "not watertight," which is why the body scanners are being introduced.

As to privacy concerns -- namely that the scanners could pick up private features of a person's body -- ter Horst said the scan results would first go through a computer, which would then flag any suspicious items to a human.

The scanners will be permanent at Schiphol, and any passengers bound for the United States who do not go through them will be body-searched, ter Horst said.

CNN's Richard Quest contributed to this report.