Thanks partly to airlines, it is one world now for travel, communication, trade, information and much else. But people still rely on nation states for basics like personal safety, protecting natural resources and sharing the benefits and responsibilities of self-government. In other words, borders still matter. 

Movements across borders received a lot of attention in 2016, causing political turbulence in Europe and the US. While airlines want less wasteful friction in international air travel, many citizens would like to restrict immigration and control travel more.

Restriction advocates want different things. Especially in the US, there have been calls for immigration laws to be enforced more strictly. In both the US and Europe, they may want less legal immigration or fewer temporary visits. These positions are held by some parties and opposed by others. But everybody seeks a third goal: preventing the movement of potential terrorists across borders.

Airlines are affected differently by each concern. Airports are already the most strictly monitored of entry points. The US’s biggest illegal immigration problems occur on its southern land border, while Europe’s major difficulties arise on eastern roads and a southern sea. 

But airports are not irrelevant. Roughly 40% of those in the US illegally came legally via visas or passports and stayed beyond their terms. Many over-stayers came by air. Nearly half a million people overstayed passport or visa terms in 2015, but the Department of Homeland Security removed only 2,500. In contrast, tiny and dense Singapore, with a population 1/50th of the US’s had 1,600 over-stayers in 2015.

No one worries about visitors who overstay a short while, out of convenience or accident. But the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) estimates that as many as 80% of over-stayers are in the US for quite a while. Jessica Vaughan, who directs policy studies at CIS, sees two possible remedies: get much better at enforcing passport and visa terms or issue fewer passports and visas. 

One low-cost way of boosting compliance is requiring an email or text-message address of each entrant, so reminders of time limits and penalties can be easily and cheaply sent out. Alternatively, eligibility for entry by passport could be restricted. Visas are waived for 30 friendly countries except for citizens who visit or hold dual passports from suspect nations. “We could expand that list of suspect nations,” Vaughn notes. “And we could be more careful with and reduce tourist and student visas. Too many overstay.” 

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is considering email reminders to visa visitors. “CBP is still in the planning stages of its strategic overstay enforcement policy,” a spokesperson said.

CIS would also like to see fewer temporary visas and green cards—the path to legal immigration—issued by the US. Others take more liberal views. 
Airlines must accept whatever immigration rules their national markets establish. Where things get complicated is trying to block movements, either in or out of a country, of dangerous individuals.

Nations do not want terror candidates leaving their borders because they may be going for training and arms in terror states or camps, only to return much more dangerous. Or they do not want terrorists and other criminals to escape punishment. The basic methods for stopping back-and-forth terror tourism include sharing relevant data, risk-based scrutiny of travelers and exploiting automation and technology to spot suspects.

Using data

On the data front, the European Union has finally directed airlines to provide security officials Passenger Name Records (PNRs) for all flights into and out of the EU by 2018. This sharing has been common outside the EU for years. 

Australia, long a leader in border security, has begun running automated checks on departing travelers. Using SITA’s Outward Advanced Passenger Processing, airlines report each passenger’s name and other data during check-in and receive an immediate board-or-no-board decision from authorities.  

Risk-based scrutiny serves several purposes. It focuses attention on real dangers. It conserves security resources for these dangers. And it minimizes burdens on non-risk passengers, which travelers and airlines appreciate. One version of recognizing risk is the US’s Global Entry program, which eases entry checks on some citizens of the US, UK and other countries after applicants volunteer personal information, are subject to background checks, pay a fee and take an in-person interview with an officer. It is available at 60 airports, with New Orleans soon to be added. 

US airline lobbying association Airlines For America (A4A) and Airports Council International (ACI) strongly support Global Entry, but the program covers only 8% of international arrivals to the US, according to Matt Cornelius, ACI-North America VP air policy. And CIS’s Vaughn has concerns about Global Entry, especially its expansion to non-US citizens. “According to senior federal officials, our screening is currently inadequate to detect individuals who may pose threats, so we should not be relaxing screening for any travelers. There are terrorists who have UK citizenship,” he said.


Technology is the most promising area of increasing border security while easing travel burdens. But there are still conflicts between industry and security interests. For example, US Congress wants biometric identification extended from entry to exit. CBP now collects only manifest names of departing visitors, but is testing several biometric tools, including facial recognition, for exit. The agency has also deployed a mobile device to collect two fingerprints from 24,000 foreigners at 10 airports in the last 12 months. 

ACI-NA’s Cornelius says capturing biometric IDs at departure would take up space that airports do not have, require money and staff that CBP may not have and generally slow travelers down. Besides, if criminals using false names want to escape the US, he argues, they have plenty of other options by land and sea. But air travel is still the best way of crossing oceans fast, which is why terrorists like to fly. A4A argues that any biometric exit checks should be paid for by the government.

In any case, biometrics and automation are rapidly expanding. Australia began piloting biometrics in 2012 to verify identities of arriving visa passengers. Handheld equipment swipes passports, taking two finger scans. Singapore began scanning thumb prints of all foreigners at all entry points—land, sea and air—in June 2016. Singaporeans use an automated entry system that avoids the thumb scan. 

Smart technology

Sean Farrell, head of government solutions at SITA, advocates a solution called SmartPath. Both departing and arriving passengers could use an ePassport, of which there are now over 500 million, to establish their identities as early as possible, at check-in, bag drop, security or even prior to airport arrival with mobile devices. Automated facial recognition ensures the passenger matches the ePassport image and then confirms this match at each succeeding step in the journey through an airport. 

SmartPath would give passengers and airlines a simple, highly efficient process that uses readily deployable machines, rather than expensive and scarcer humans with long lines, to move people. Security officials should get reliable identification of arriving and departing passengers. Although some governments have been careless in past issuance of passports, Farrell argues that governments issue new ePassports only after careful checks of supporting documents.

SITA recently tested SmartPath in Qatar, and Farrell expects it to start wider deployment over the next 18 months. Widespread use would most likely begin at new airports and terminals. The approach may not be the complete answer for all passengers, but saving time and money on easier cases makes handling tougher cases much more possible.