GENEVA – A day after pressing Europe's governments, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Friday gained the support of the world's airlines for the Obama administration's goal of ramping up aviation security to keep terrorists off planes.
Napolitano met with the global industry group for airlines and more than two dozen CEOs of major carriers, telling a news conference in Geneva that industry and governments would work closely on improving data collection, information sharing, passenger vetting and other security standards.
"We must move as an international community of responsible nations to deal with any threats to aviation security," she said. "Governments and the carriers themselves need to work together to improve the air environment."
Napolitano was on the second stop of a tour to toughen global flight regulations after meeting Thursday with European justice ministers, many of whom are wary about body scanners the U.S. wants to use to enhance airport screening. She said Friday that Washington believes in the technology but wasn't demanding the same from other nations with privacy concerns.
The meeting with industry was hailed by the head of the International Air Transport Association, which represents about 230 airlines responsible for 90 percent of all flight traffic. Giovanni Bisignani compared Napolitano's approach favorably to that of her predecessors in the administration of George W. Bush.
On security issues, "the previous administration said, 'We decide and you implement,"' Bisignani told The Associated Press. "We were caught in a trap. Our life was impossible."
The International Air Transport Association and the Homeland Security Department released similar statements with strategies for improving the security of passenger planes, stressing the need for better and more efficient systems to collect data on passengers, and share the information among governments and airlines.
But some differences remained, not least concerning $6 billion in security costs that airlines say they are footing.
Bisignani said security was the top priority of airlines, but insisted that companies would need some flexibility in order to operate in various countries with sometimes opposing regulations. He stressed the need for greater harmonization among national authorities so that a carrier is not torn between different rules in the countries where an international flight takes of from and lands.
As half of all passengers flying to the United States are traveling on foreign airlines, better coordination between the United States and other governments was essential, he said.
"We have to evolve," Bisignani said. "We have to avoid increasing the level of hassle as we increase the level of security."
Another issue concerns how passenger data is transmitted to authorities, Bisignani added. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, airlines had to send passenger data to six different agencies of Homeland Security, he noted, adding that a single data collection program would be the best solution.
Napolitano also spoke about how the terror threat had evolved since 2001, demanding a new security approach. She said this was proved by the failed Christmas bombing attempt, when U.S. authorities say a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear during a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit
"The kinds of things that were done on 9/11 to take over the aircraft have been fixed," Napolitano said. But, now "there are individuals who will try to find gaps in the system," using liquids, powders and gels to kill people.
"We were looking for bad things," he said. "Now we have to look for bad people."