Airline passengers to wear masks for two more years, Emirates SVP predicts

Aviation security event in Dubai addressed the pandemic and emerging cybersecurity threats

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Airline passengers will have to get used to wearing face masks on flights for at least another two years, a senior figure from Emirates airline has said.

Zack Zainal Abidin, senior vice president of Emirates Group Security, made his comments on the sidelines of an aviation security conference in Dubai on Sunday.

“Covid is here to stay and it won’t change until it’s regarded as endemic rather than a pandemic,” he said

"It used to be the case that the flu was regarded as a dangerous disease until it became part and parcel of life.

“It’s going to take some time before Covid-19 reaches that stage.”

When discussing international travel Mr Abidin warned that people should not expect to go mask-free anytime soon.

"It's going to be a while before the status of Covid-19 changes and there's going to be at least two more years of people wearing masks," he said.

Facial recognition technology is not enough now, we need to find ways to go beyond that and be able to identify people who are wearing masks
Zack Zainal Abidin, Emirates Group Security

Mr Abidin also said the pandemic was presenting challenges for the aviation security sector.

Traditional methods of detecting terror threats to ensure passenger safety – such as the use of fingerprint identification – were no longer viable, with many checks going contactless, Mr Abidin said.

“It used to be the case we would use more physical methods like fingerprints but we have had to adapt because of a need for physical distancing.”

Mr Abidin was speaking on the opening day of the Avsec Global Symposium, which is taking place in Dubai’s JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, from October 3 to October 5.

“Facial recognition technology is not enough now, we need to find ways to go beyond that and be able to identify people who are wearing masks,” he said.

“These are the new technologies that have to be explored and expanded, due to the conditions created by the pandemic.”

Mr Abidin said the methods used to track suspicious activity, such as matching of passports and using fingerprints, are becoming less relevant as threats become more sophisticated.

Methods employed by terrorists are also constantly evolving.

“One of the biggest threats emerging to the aviation industry is in cyber security,” he said.

“It can vary from data breaches to people trying to take control of equipment or the transport itself.”

A report last year by the World Economic Forum suggested governments and businesses were struggling to adapt to the threats to the aviation industry posed by cyber criminals.

“A cyber attack could quickly result in serious loss of life and utter catastrophe,” said the Pathways Towards a Cyber Resilient Aviation Industry report.

“It could potentially destroy trust in a single company and have cascading dire effects on the entire industry.”

The report called on airlines across the world to unify their approach to dealing with cybersecurity threats.

It also said the number of airline passengers was also expected to more than double from the 4.3 billion transported in 2018 to 10 billion in 2040 – despite the impact of Covid-19.

Also speaking at the Dubai symposium on Sunday was UK Aviation Minister Robert Courts, who urged vigilance against terror threats, despite the slowdown in passenger numbers due to the pandemic.

“The strategies terrorists are using are becoming more sophisticated and diverse,” he said.

“Terrorists will try to continue to develop and try to evade detection at airport security checkpoints.

“Top-quality airport checks are absolutely vital.”

Updated: October 06, 2021, 5:28 AM