Airlines must hand over records in screening efforts
November 12, 2004
WASHINGTON – The federal government said it will begin analyzing millions of U.S. airline passenger records by the end of the month in a first step toward creating a computerized screening system to protect the nation’s airlines from terrorist attack.
The Transportation Security Administration on Friday ordered 72 carriers to turn over historical passengers records by Nov. 23 so it can begin testing a program called Secure Flight. The system seeks to consolidate various government watch lists and improve the accuracy of comparing passenger names against those of suspected terrorists.
The program also aims to avoid public embarrassment and delays for hundreds of innocent travelers – some of them members of Congress – who were stopped by security officers in airports. The government effort has been met with skepticism by conservatives and privacy rights advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who say the government should not be regularly combing through airline passenger lists. The TSA has received more than 500 comments from individuals and companies about the program, most of them critical.
The TSA acknowledged Friday that it still faces several hurdles before it can officially launch the program, including cooperation with other countries. European laws prevent airlines from sharing information about customers with the government unless it is part of a specific criminal investigation. Any U.S. carrier sharing information with the TSA about European passengers on flights overseas could be placed in a legal bind between the two continents.
Doug Wills, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said carriers “would urge the U.S. and the E.U. to negotiate reciprocal agreements that would protect the security of passengers and the security of privacy.” ATA represents the major airlines.
“It’s an issue we have to work very carefully,” said Justin Oberman, assistant administrator of transportation vetting and credentialing. “There’s no question we’re going to have close collaboration. What form that would take at the end, we don’t know yet.”
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U.S. airlines have raised a number of concerns with the TSA about the program in the past few months, but they publicly supported it Friday.
The TSA said it didn’t believe carriers would legally challenge the order or refuse to cooperate.
“We’re in great shape as we enter the testing phase,” Oberman said, noting the TSA will soon pick a contractor to help conduct testing. If all goes according to plan, the new system will go into operation in late spring or early summer of 2005, he said.
United Airlines said it wondered how the airlines would be able to share information on 1.8 million daily airline travelers with the government fast enough, especially when some passengers buy tickets minutes before departure. United also expressed concern about the costs and the linking of each airline’s unique computer reservation system with the government system. Other carriers privately agreed to support Secure Flight if the TSA would quickly expand another program called Registered Traveler that provides a quicker pass through security for the carrier’s most frequent customers, according to an aviation source.
“U.S. airlines have long-standing concerns that center on privacy and operational issues,” said James May, chief executive of the Air Transport Association. “We hope that many of the issues will be successfully addressed during the test phase of Secure Flight.”