The country's biggest airline says it's worried about confrontations with irate travellers who could be barred from boarding aircraft under the Canadian no-fly list set to take effect next week.
Yves Duguay, the director of security for Air Canada, toldthe Air India inquiry Thursday that his main concern in implementing the program is "the safety and security of our front-line staff and the customers at the check-in counter."
It's not that anybody fears a frustrated terrorist will launch an attack on the airport ticket line, Duguay told the inquiry in Ottawa. It's simply that "an unruly situation" could develop if people are told they can't fly because their names are on the list.
"The situation could be very tense, and we need to have an authority figure in place to defuse that situation. So we want to make sure that we have a police presence."
Duguay offered his views to the inquiry headed by former Supreme Court justice John Major into the 1985 Air India bombing. Although he's focusing on the downing of the jumbo jet 22 years ago, part of Major's mandate is also to examine current security measures to see whether they're adequate to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
The no-fly list, drawn up by the federal government, is scheduled to come into force next Monday. Its aim is to keep anyone deemed a security threat from boarding a commercial air flight originating or stopping in Canada.
Unlike a similar U.S. list, which stood at 70,000 names at one point, the Canadian version is expected to contain fewer than 1,000 names. The hope is to avoid the pitfalls of the American list, which has generated thousands of complaints from travellers wrongly included on the roster of terrorist suspects.
Duguay said Air Canada supports the new list in principle. But he also indicated the airline hasn't received all the answers it wants from Transport Canada about how it will work in practice.
For example, he said, Transport officials have said only that they're consulting the RCMP and other police forces about making officers available in case of trouble at ticket counters.
Also uncertain is whether the airline can share the names on the Canadian list with authorities in other countries— for example, with police at an overseas airport if they're called to subdue an unruly passenger who's denied permission to board a Canada-bound flight.
"That's a point where we're not sure," said Duguay. "Our interpretation is that we would be allowed to pass on that information."
Less clear is whether Air Canada, or any other airline, could share the entire no-fly list with foreign authorities.
It was also acknowledged that foreign-based airlines could pass the list to their home governments with or without Canada's approval.
That sparked concerns by federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, who has since come under pressure to elaborate on her views at the inquiry. Major issued a subpoena earlier this week to compel her to testify, but called off enforcement efforts Thursday after Stoddart agreed to appear voluntarily.
The inquiry has also reached a deal with the International Air Transport Association, which has agreed to send witnesses to the commission after initially resisting the demand.
Air Canada was also reluctant to attend at first but reversed course after Major threatened the company with yet another subpoena.
On other subjects Thursday, Duguay voiced support for the use of armed RCMP officers as sky marshals on selected flights in Canada, brushing aside claims by critics who fear the practice could lead to dangerous mid-air shootouts.
Duguay, who spent 25 years as a Mountie before joining Air Canada, said the officers are well-trained and act as a deterrent to would-be attackers.
He was less enthusiastic about the use of so-called behavioural analysis to screen out passengers at the airport who appear to be acting strangely.
"It requires a lot of time, it requires a lot of training, and you need experts to conduct this type of questioning," said Duguay. If such programs aren't handled carefully, he warned, they degenerate into unacceptable racial profiling.