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Air passengers ought to be screened for identity too

Mar 12, 2014 - By The Chicago Tribune

If you want to board a commercial airliner anywhere in the world, you can expect pretty much the usual drill: Show identification and boarding pass, empty your pockets, step through an X-ray machine or scanner, maybe undergo a pat-down. But in many places, an elementary requirement gets skipped. No one will bother to check to see if you're the person you claim to be.

That failure may or may not have something to do with the shocking and mysterious disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on Saturday. But at least two people on the flight had boarded using stolen passports, one from an Italian man and the other from an Austrian. Interpol, an international police agency whose members include 190 countries, is investigating whether any other passengers may have done the same thing.

Interpol says many countries don't make a habit of checking passenger names against its list of more than 40 million lost or stolen passports, making air carriers vulnerable. Last year, it says, there were more than a billion boardings by passengers whose passports were not screened in this way.

The U.S. is one of the exceptions. Interpol says the U.S. uses the system to screen passports 250 million times a year. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security was able to alert airlines to some 3,600 suspect travelers.

The United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates are also heavy users of the list. But "only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights," Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said.

It's hard to see why every government shouldn't insist on routine use of this basic protection.

The passengers who stole passports to board this flight may not have been dangerous to their fellow travelers. But no one steals and uses someone else's passport for legitimate reasons. Only those who are inclined to violate the law and want to get away with it are given to this practice.

Whether the travelers who used stolen passports played any role in the fate of the plane is not known and may never be known. But had Malaysia Airlines conducted a simple check, there would be no possibility of it.

The world can act now to close off this avenue for terrorists. Or it can wait until after one of them makes use of it.

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