A "glaring gap" in global aviation security has opened up because fewer than 10 countries systematically use an international police database to verify whether a passenger is flying with stolen documents.
Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble said yesterday that the organisation's Stolen or Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database - which contains 42 million records from 167 countries - was being underused.
Of the 1.2 billion passengers who flew internationally in 2013, at least one in three was never checked in the system, he said.
The issue came to light after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, on which two Iranian men were able to board using stolen passports. It was later reported that they were illegal migrants, and Malaysian authorities were criticised for not consulting the database.
Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid said making the checks was too time-consuming for immigration officers and caused airport delays.
Noble rejected that excuse and warned that far more action was needed to close what he described as "this glaring security gap" and strengthen global aviation safety.
More than a billion times last year, travellers boarded planes without their passports being checked against Interpol's database, the Lyon-based police body has said.
"The time to act is now. Stolen or lost travel documents are still in the hands of far too many international terrorists," Noble said.
It is unclear whether Hong Kong uses the Interpol database. This month, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok sidestepped the issue, saying only that the Immigration Department maintained close liaisons with overseas, mainland and local law- enforcement agencies "through an established mechanism".
In the past three years, the number of Hong Kong passports reported lost - including those missing and stolen - increased by 26 per cent, from 8,439 in 2011 to 10,676 last year. During the same period, the number of forged travel documents detected at Hong Kong International Airport dropped from 444 in 2011 to 402 last year, according to figures provided by Lai.
The executive director of the United Nations counterterrorism committee said scanning passports took no more than three seconds.
"We've encouraged member states to use consistently the tools available to strengthen border management and security," Jean-Paul Laborde said, speaking at the same press conference.
But Raymond Benjamin, secretary general of the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation, noted that only e-passports were scannable, and those without that feature would remain valid until November next year.
The Interpol database, which was established in 2005, is used more than 230 million times per year by the United States, more than 140 million times by Britain, more than 100 million times by the United Arab Emirates and more than 29 million times by Singapore, according to Interpol.
Checks allow authorities to see the date and place a passport was issued and the date the document was declared stolen or lost.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse