GTAS implementation: an historic milestone for the MaldivesBy Mohamed Afzal, Chief Customs Officer, Maldives Customs Service
The Maldives Customs Service recently installed the Global Travel Assessment System (GTAS), an advance passenger data risk assessment system that enables advance passenger information (API) and passenger name record (PNR) data to be collected and analysed. In this article, the Customs Service explains how this project took shape.
Being an island nation with limited economic resources, the Maldives largely depends on tourism as its main source of national income. Millions of tourists visit the country annually, ensuring its economic viability. However, with so many arrivals, the country is also exposed to numerous risks as some travellers have been found to be involved in illegal activities.
To counter the threats that could potentially harm the country and its citizens, the Maldives Customs Service decided to strengthen its risk assessment capacities by moving from a manual risk management system for passenger control to an electronic passenger data exchange system, enabling the collection and analysis of API and PNR data.
Up until 2017, the Maldives Customs Service did not have a clear action plan for the implementation of an API and PNR transmission and processing system. But in October 2017, a representative of the Customs Service attended a workshop of the WCO Asia Pacific Security Project (APSP) in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had an opportunity to meet the project managers and discuss the needs of his administration.
Over the weeks that followed, the Maldives Customs Service kept in touch with the project managers to facilitate planning for the work that lay ahead. Finally, in March 2018, WCO experts visited the country to assess the possibility of installing the Global Travel Assessment System (GTAS). The system was donated to the WCO by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which also provides technical support for the implementation of the software.
With the financial support of the APSP, a service provider was contracted for a period of three years to collect API and PNR data from all international airlines servicing the Maldives, and then enter it into the GTAS. A dedicated GTAS project team was also set up within the Maldives Customs Service. The implementation stage required a number of conference calls with the WCO, CBP, and the service provider. In addition, several information sessions were held for all stakeholders, to ensure their ongoing support for the project.
Of particular importance for smooth implementation of the project was, of course, the engagement with airlines, which were kept up to date through emails and several meetings during the whole process. Airlines were given a “grace period” to comply with the API/PNR regulations. The regulations required the airlines to provide both API and PNR data, in accordance with WCO and ICAO standards. After approximately one and a half years of continuous work, success was achieved when API was finally received and passed through the GTAS system.
The initial API test message was received on 20 June 2019 from Etihad Airways, and the first “live” data was received on 23 June 2019 from Maldivian, the national airline of the Maldives. At the time of writing, 85% of airlines have begun providing API to the Maldives Customs Service. Regarding PNR data, the first data was received in August 2019 from Air Asia.
Training was provided by WCO and CBP experts to Maldives Customs officers in charge of risk analysis on how to use the GTAS. Administrators were also appointed and trained to manage and maintain the tool. Along with Customs officers, training was also provided to officials from the Police Service, Immigration, and the National Defence Force. Discussions are now underway about arrangements for these agencies to benefit from the new capability.
During the one and a half year implementation period, a number of challenges were encountered in implementing the GTAS in the Maldives. In particular, constraints stemming from legal, financial, technical, and time related issues.
As there was no legal framework in place to require airlines to provide API/PNR data, Maldives officials had to draft appropriate API/PNR regulations, which needed approval from the Attorney General’s Office and the President’s Office. The regulations were finally published in the Government Gazette on 27 August 2018.
Thereafter, the technical challenge of implementing the GTAS began. Despite the fact that today, many countries require airlines to provide API/PNR data, the airlines serving the Maldives were not able to provide the data within the time period given to them. However, by maintaining regular contact with the airlines, the Maldives Customs Service was eventually able to bring them all on board.
Moreover, some airlines are still not able to transfer PNR data for flights coming from the European Union (EU) due to the bloc’s data protection regulations. Reaching a bilateral agreement between the Maldives and the EU is, therefore, a priority action for the Maldives Customs Service.
Successes and future improvements
Receiving and risk assessing API/PNR data is an historic milestone for the Customs Service, the aviation industry and the nation as a whole, as it will contribute to the security of the Maldives while facilitating passenger flows. Use of the system has already enabled several offenders to be identified – for example, on 1 September 2019, Customs intercepted two drug couriers from South America, identified as high-risk by the GTAS.
However, there is still a lot more work ahead. With the ongoing support of the WCO and CBP, regular system checks and upgrades will be undertaken. The risk assessment criteria used in the GTAS will also need to be continually monitored and updated in response to newly identified risk indicators and intelligence.
To ensure the uninterrupted receipt of API/PNR data from all airlines, Maldives will also need to continue to work collaboratively with existing and new airlines. Furthermore, maintaining data security and privacy will continue to be given the utmost importance by the Customs Service and other relevant authorities.
In addition, the Maldives Customs Service is actively participating in the WCO/IATA/ICAO API-PNR Contact Committee in order to share experiences with other Customs administrations.
Appreciation and recognition
This huge accomplishment was achieved with the assistance of many who deserve appreciation and recognition. The Maldives Customs Service extends its thanks to the WCO Secretariat for facilitating the GTAS implementation project, to CBP for providing technical support and working tirelessly during the implementation phase, and to the Government of Japan for providing funds.
Without a doubt, many officers of the Maldives Customs Service also deserve recognition for their tireless efforts in making the implementation of the GTAS project a success. This includes the Commissioner General of Customs, Mr. Ahmed Numan, and his management team for their tremendous support of the project.