Millions of British airline passengers face mandatory fingerprinting before being allowed to board domestic flights when Heathrow’s Terminal 5 opens later this month. For the first time at any airport, the biometric checks will apply to all
domestic passengers leaving the terminal, which will handle all British Airways flights to and from Heathrow.
The controversial security measure is also set to be introduced at Gatwick, Manchester and Heathrow’s Terminal 1, and many airline industry insiders believe fingerprinting could become universal at all UK airports within a few years.
All four million domestic passengers who will pass through Terminal 5 annually after it opens on March 27 will have four fingerprints taken, as well as being photographed, when they check in.
To ensure the passenger boarding the aircraft is the same person, the fingerprinting process will be repeated just before they board the aircraft and the photograph will be compared with their face.
BAA, the company which owns Heathrow, insists the biometric information will be destroyed after 24 hours and will not be passed on to the police. It says the move is necessary to prevent criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants trying to
bypass border controls. The company said the move had been necessitated by the design of Terminal 5, where international and domestic passengers share the same lounges and public areas after they have checked in.
Without the biometric checks, the company says, potential criminals and illegal immigrants arriving on international flights or in transit to another country could bypass border controls by swapping boarding passes with a domestic passenger who
has already checked in.
They could then board the domestic flight, where proof of identity is not currently required, fly on to another UK airport and leave without having to go through passport control.
Most other airports avoid the problem by keeping international and domestic passengers separate at all times, but the mixed lounges exist at Gatwick, Manchester and Heathrow’s Terminal 1.
Civil liberties campaigners have raised concerns about the possibility of security agencies trying to access the treasure trove of personal data in the future.
There are also fears that fingerprinting will add to the infamous "Heathrow hassle" which has led to some business travellers holding meetings in other countries because they want to avoid the sprawling, scruffy airport at any cost.
Dr Gus Hosein, of the London School of Economics, an expert on the impact on technology on civil liberties, is one of the scheme’s strongest critics. He said: There is no other country in the world that requires passengers travelling on
internal flights to be fingerprinted. BAA says the fingerprint data will be destroyed, but the records of who has travelled within the country will not be, and it will provide a rich source of data for the police and intelligence agencies.
Simon Davies, of campaign group Privacy International, suggested the photograph alone would be a perfectly adequate - and much cheaper - way of identifying passengers.
Plans to fingerprint millions of passengers a year at Heathrow's new fifth terminal have been put on hold hours before it opens for business.
BAA, the airport operator, took the decision after being warned by the Government's Information Commissioner that the move could breach the Data Protection Act.
It has left BAA is facing huge embarrassment at a time when it was hoping that public attention would be fixed on the long-awaited £4.3 billion terminal when it handles its first passengers tomorrow.
The controversial scheme meant that, for the first time ever, travellers would be fingerprinted before being allowed to board a plane. It would have affected about four million domestic passengers a year who use the terminal, which will become
the British Airways base at the airport.
A BAA spokesman said that it will hold further talks with both the Information Commissioner and the Border and Immigration Agency before deciding its next move.
For the time being instead of leaving a fingerprint before passing through security - which is verified at the departure gate - passengers will be photographed.
Although BAA is keen to press ahead with the plans, no date has been fixed for when it will be able to do so. The decision to fingerprint all domestic passengers at the terminal was triggered by the demands for heightened security by the Home
Office. With domestic and international passengers sharing the departure lounge at the terminal, it was feared that this would make it possible to bypass border controls.
The scheme hit the buffers late last week when David Smith, the Deputy Information Commissioner, questioned its necessity. He said photographing – the option now being adopted – would be far less intrusive.
Even the Home Office, which had put pressure on BAA to tighten security, distanced itself from the move. This was despite officials previously demanding some form of biometric tests in addition to photographs – and having approved the fingerprint
scheme during months of negotiations.