Growing number of security measures
The harmonisation of aviation security measures at European level has largely facilitated travel by ensuring all EU countries apply the same standards and practices. It also serves to guarantee minimum levels of security in all countries. However, member states remain free to apply more stringent security measures provided that they are "relevant, objective, non-discriminatory and proportional to the risk that is being addressed". This, combined with a general increase in security threats, has led to the adoption of a large number of 'ad hoc' security measures, both at national and EU level.
For example, in November 2006, following the exposure of an alleged terrorist plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto aircraft at London's Heathrow airport in August of that year (EURACTIV 21/08/06), the EU introduced new restrictions on carrying liquids on board. Under the new rules, European air passengers may only carry liquids on board if they are in containers of less than 100ml and held in a transparent, re-sealable plastic bag to be checked by airport security officials.
The restrictions have been strongly criticised for causing confusion and delays at European airports, while hundreds of tonnes of duty-free goods and thousands of litres of alcohol and perfume are confiscated from misinformed passengers each week (EURACTIV 13/02/07, 06/09/07).
A key issue is that larger quantities of liquid are only permitted on the flight if they have been purchased in a duty-free shop within the EU and are carried in a sealed plastic bag. Liquids purchased in duty-free shops outside the EU have to be abandoned at the airport, even if the passenger is only transiting.
To address this problem, the Commission, in July 2007, adopted a regulation that will allow it to grant exemptions to third countries once it has verified that they apply equivalent aviation security standards. So far, just Singapore and Croatia have been approved.
Parallel planned measures to limit the size of baggage that EU travellers may take on board aircraft have since been withdrawn for fear of provoking similar chaos at European airports to that caused by the ban on liquids.
Passenger Name Records – a breach of privacy?
To comply with US anti-terror requirements, the Council signed an agreement, in May 2004, forcing European airlines to pass on 34 pieces of information about passengers on planes flying to or through the US – including credit card details, email addresses, telephone numbers and hotel and car reservations – to US security authorities.
In September 2004, the European Parliament appealed to the European Court of Justice for the annulment of the agreement, arguing that it did not provide sufficient privacy protection for European passengers. The ECJ ruled, on 30 May 2006, that the Council decision was not "founded on an appropriate legal basis" and told the EU to renegotiate the deal (EURACTIV 31/05/06). A deal was finally reached at the end of June 2007 (EURACTIV 29/06/07), requiring air carriers to pass on data regarding European passengers to the US Department of Homeland Security. The deal has once again been fiercely criticised by civil rights organisations and MEPs, which say it is no better than the previous one.
The final compromise allows EU airlines to transfer 19 pieces of information, including names, travel dates, full itinerary, billing data and baggage information, to US counter-terrorist agencies. "Sensitive" PNR data, such as racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership and data concerning the health or sex life of the individual can also be used for limited periods in "exceptional cases". Data can be retained for three-and-a-half to fifteen years and will be kept for seven years in "active analytical databases," which MEPs fear will lead to a substantial risk of massive profiling, contrary to EU principles (EURACTIV 13/07/07).
In November 2007, the Commission proposed using this scheme as a precedent for the establishment of an 'EU PNR' (EURACTIV 7/11/07).
Despite clinching a deal with the Commission on the PNR, Washington is now attempting to lure countries like Greece, Hungary and other new member states to hand over extra data on transatlantic passengers and allow armed air marshals on board US carriers flying to and from their territories, in exchange for the same visa-free access that Western EU citizens benefit from.
Indeed, the US refuses to grant visa-free access on a bloc-wide basis, saying it first has to ensure that each individual country fulfils its stringent security requirements. It has notably already signed bilateral deals with the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia, while another 12 EU nations are still excluded from the US Visa Waiver Programme.
The matter has frustrated the EU, which has accused the US of attempting to undermine the Union's common visa policy and force individual countries to agree to additional security measures that are in violation of EU rules on aviation security and data protection (EurAcitv 13/03/08).
The Commission said it would propose retaliatory measures – e.g. temporary restoration of the visa requirement for US nationals holding diplomatic and service/official passports – as of 1 January 2009 if no progress is achieved on including additional EU member states in its visa waiver programme by then.
Rising costs for airlines
European airlines and airports have lashed out at the high costs incurred by the ever-increasing security measures they have to comply with. Indeed, transport security costs can be significant and public authorities' attitude to funding varies widely across member states, which can lead to distortions in competition between airports and air carriers in different countries.
In an August 2006 report, the Commission noted that "the protection of European citizens against terrorist attacks is essentially a state responsibility" and that public financing for such measures does not constitute state aid. MEPs also insisted that governments be made to take on at least some security costs to avoid distortions of competition and ensure that security measures are carried out to the highest standard in all airports – rather than at the lowest cost.
But the idea was rejected by member states and, in the end, the final legislative text on new EU aviation security measures generally avoids the question of cost. It leaves governments the freedom to determine "in which circumstances and to what extent the costs of security measures should be borne by the state, the airport entities, air carriers, and other responsible agencies or users" (EURACTIV 12/03/08).
Nevertheless, the Commission has been asked to produce, before 31 December 2008, a common formula for calculating these costs to improve their transparency. It is also invited to propose steps to ensure that any additional security charges imposed on passengers are used exclusively to meet security costs.
Airlines also say EU legislation on security is unbalanced and unfair towards the aviation sector compared with other transport modes such as trains and coaches, which are not under the same kind of pressure, despite the Madrid and London bombings.
They have called for the PNR system to be applied to all modes of transport so as to avoid discrimination and competitive distortions.