OTTAWA (CP) - A $7-million high-tech security system is finally being installed to screen workers at Canada's main airports, almost three years after it was ordered.
The futuristic system, which relies on fingerprint and iris scanning, is designed to make it tougher for criminals and terrorists to infiltrate secure areas of airports.
The restricted area identification card project, launched Nov. 5, 2002, after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, will replace the current system which relies on less-secure photo ID cards.
"There is no model for this type of program existing anywhere in the world," said Kevin McGarr, vice-president of risk and quality at the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. "We . . . are pioneers in this."
The new biometric cards feature embedded memory chips that contain a record of an individual's unique fingerprint and iris information.
When an airport worker arrives for a shift, a scanning device will read the person's iris or fingerprint, compare it with the smart card's memory, and check a central computer in Ottawa to ensure the employee has a valid security clearance.
If all these match, the worker - whether a baggage handler, aircraft mechanic or flight attendant - will be allowed into a secure area.
The security authority is providing cards and equipment to Canada's 29 biggest airports by the end of December, and all 125,000 airport workers should be enrolled sometime next year.
McGarr said the project has taken so long because it uses complex, leading-edge technology, with contracts awarded last year to Ottawa-based ACME-Future Security Controls Inc. for the cards and scanners, and to UNICOM and IBM for project management.
"It's a significant amount of time, for sure," he acknowledged in an interview. "It's not a small job."
British Columbia's Kelowna International Airport is the first to transfer all of its 480 workers to the new technology, after participating in a pilot project last year with airports in Vancouver, Montreal and Charlottetown.
"We find the whole system very robust," said general manager Roger Sellick. "It significantly improves the level of security."
Kelowna relies primarily on fingerprint biometrics, with only a handful of workers using iris scans because of individual problems that can obscure readings of their fingers.
The airport has also installed so-called "person-trap" technology at its three fully-automated checkpoints to prevent a second person piggybacking or tailgating when a legitimate worker is scanned through.
Under the old photo-identification regime, cards were checked by busy guards who might miss security breaches.
"If somebody didn't look at the photograph closely enough, you could be using anybody's card," Sellick said.
The new system will also provide economic benefits to the Kelowna airport, which relies heavily on U.S. tourists arriving from Seattle for skiing or golf. American regulators need assurance that the regional facility - Canada's 10th busiest - is not an airline-security gap.
"It boils down to economics," said Sellick. "Our concern is to ensure that we are providing the same level of security as exists at the major hub airports in both Canada and the United States.
"This is an economic issue for us to ensure that we can demonstrate to regulators that we're not the weak link in the chain."
Transport Canada, responsible for overseeing airport security, has repeatedly come under fire for alleged lapses involving airport workers. Critics say biker gangs, for example, have been able to infiltrate airports to bring drugs into Canada.
Last year, Auditor General Sheila Fraser slammed the department for the shoddy way it carried out background checks into airport workers.
Fraser said the department lacked access to all of the RCMP's criminal intelligence, and estimated as many as 4,500 existing workers at five airports had possible criminal associations that warranted further investigation.
A spokeswoman said Transport Canada has since signed an agreement with the RCMP allowing full access to criminal intelligence files, and reviewed the security clearances of all 125,000 workers in a year-long program that ended in March this year.
About a dozen of those workers remain under investigation, although no security clearances have been revoked or suspended, Lucie Vignola said.
Transport Canada has about 140 inspectors checking airport security regularly and requires three audits of each airport's systems annually.
(c) 2005 Associated Press