In an interview, Peter Stücheli, Head of the Airport Police, explains the tests for the automated border control system and why machines will never quite replace people.
What is your field of activity?
The airport police form part of Zurich cantonal police. Around 400 policemen and 1,000 security officers work for us. Our primary task is to check the approx. 26,000 passengers who cross the Schengen external border every day. We are responsible for police security at the airport and monitor the main airport complex as well as the area in and around the perimeter. We also fulfil criminal police tasks (combating and investigating drug smuggling, trafficking, freight and baggage theft). Security control for passengers and baggage is carried out by our security officers on behalf of Flughafen Zürich AG.
Flughafen Zürich AG and the Zurich cantonal police have started testing automated border control systems. What is this all about?
Citizens of states outside the European freedom of movement agreement have to be checked thoroughly when crossing the Schengen external border. Automated control is not possible in this instance. In the case of citizens of the EU, the EMU or Switzerland it is merely necessary to verify that their travel document belongs to them and that it is genuine, unforged, still valid and has not been listed as lost or stolen. No trained policemen are required for this check. It can be done by a machine. The system does, however, have to be monitored by two members of staff who check passengers who are kept back and to assist passengers in the event of irregularities. The machine can therefore never replace people entirely. On 1 December 2010 we started a six-month test on three control lines in the arrivals and departures hall below the Airside Center.
How does automated border control work?
If the security doors are in operation, access is indicated with “E-Pass Lane”. Instead of the manual passport check, citizens of the EU, the EMU or Switzerland who are at least 18 years of age and hold a biometric passport can pass through the automated border control system. The system checks the security marks in the passport, scans the data and transfers them to a server in Berne where they are compared with police registers of wanted persons. The passenger’s face is photographed as well. The data of this photograph and the passport photo are compared. If they match and the result of the data check on the wanted persons registers in Berne is “OK”, the exit door is opened. Otherwise, the passenger is checked by a member of staff. The entire checking process takes 10 to 20 seconds. All data and images are automatically deleted afterwards.
What are the advantages of automated border control?
Passenger numbers at Zurich Airport are increasing steadily and the checks required for citizens of states outside the European freedom of movement agreement will become considerably more intensive in the coming years. The airport police are therefore looking for ways in which to relieve staff of tasks for which trained policemen are not required. Partial automation of border control operations could alleviate the rather difficult staffing situation. The machines could also help us to manage peak passenger numbers more efficiently and to reduce bottlenecks at the counters. Finally, we also hope to increase passenger convenience by reducing the waiting times at border control counters.
What is particularly important to you in connection with the testing series?
The quality of the check must be just as good as that of a manual border control check. The device must be so user-friendly that passengers can use it without any trouble. Only if security is warranted, the passengers are content and the system actually does result in staff reductions, will a definite introduction be considered.