X-rays to cut airport queues

CLOSE LOOK: Security personnel check a passenger and her bags through an X-ray machine in Ljubljana's airport.
CLOSE LOOK: Security personnel check a passenger and her bags through an X-ray machine in Ljubljana's airport.

Passengers flying in to New Zealand from Australia will be able to skip the baggage X-ray queue from next year.

The move could eventually see all international passengers bypassing biosecurity X-rays here. Biosecurity officials will instead be able to review X-rays taken at overseas airports before passengers board planes to New Zealand.

The Agriculture and Forestry Ministry is about to go to market for a system that will let it pre-screen X-rays of stowed baggage while passengers are en route to New Zealand.

Spokeswoman Kathy Dyer says the system will be introduced for passengers departing Brisbane Airport in early 2011, with other Australian airports expected to join the scheme subsequently.

It will allow passengers to make a speedier exit from the airport.

"When passengers arrive in New Zealand, they will pick up their bags and proceed to the biosecurity area as normal."

Luggage flagged as a possible risk will be identified through bag identification tags as belonging to a passenger, who will be referred to a biosecurity inspector on arrival, she says. "People who have nothing to declare for biosecurity and where MAF is satisfied they are a low risk for biosecurity will go through an express exit."

MAF's systems will recognise which bags have been pre-screened, and sniffer dogs and other tools would be used to check hand luggage.

All checked-in bags are currently X-rayed for security reasons before they are loaded on to planes. The ministry will not send bag X-rays for passengers flying to Australia to airports there, as they are not currently interested in pre-screening luggage.

At this stage, the system will be introduced for "low-risk trans-Tasman flights only", but a number of international airports, including in Singapore, Hong Kong, Vancouver and Chile, have expressed interest in the initiative.

Pre-screening of X-rays is unlikely to lead to redundancies, as the images will still need to be checked and bags searched, she says.

"The initiative will free up resources and allow them to continue processing the increased number of passengers."

Craig Davey, president of biosecurity lobby group Biosecurity New Zealand, says pre-screening is a great idea as long as biosecurity is not compromised.

The standard of X-ray images taken in Australia would need to be similar to or a better quality than images taken in New Zealand.

"I don't think MAF are doing this to take a backward step. They're being proactive to try and free up resources or make better use of resources."

Customs has already installed SmartGate kiosks in Auckland and Wellington airports that use e-passport readers, cameras and facial recognition technology to check people's identities.

The automated kiosks, which replace manned Customs booths, can be used by New Zealand and Australian e-passport holders.