Homeland Security to Change Airline Boarding Process
Fliers Will Have to Give More Info. to Airlines
A long-delayed U.S. government program designed to more accurately prescreen the names of airline passengers against terror watch lists is expected to start early next year.
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008; 5:32 PM
The Department of Homeland Security will take responsibility from airlines for checking passenger names against watch lists beginning in January and will require all commercial passengers for the first time to provide their full name, date of birth and gender as a condition of boarding a flight, U.S. officials said today.
The changes will be phased in next year for the 2 million passengers each day aboard domestic and international flights to, from or over the United States. It marks the Bush administration's long-delayed fulfillment of a top aviation security priority identified after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, an effort that has long spurred privacy concerns.
Speaking at Reagan National Airport, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley said that by gathering more personal information from passengers, the government will dramatically cut down on instances of mistaken identity that have wrongly delayed travelers or kept them off flights.
Over the years, countless travelers have faced difficulties because their names are similar to those on the agency's no-fly list or a second list of "selectees" identified for added questioning. They include infants and toddlers, Sen. Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy (D-Mass.), and the wife of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Catherine, whose name is similar to Cat Stevens, the former name of the watch-listed pop singer who converted to Islam.
"We know that threats to our aviation system persist," Chertoff said. "Secure Flight will help us better protect the traveling public while creating a more consistent passenger pre-screening process, ultimately reducing the number of misidentification issues."
Commercial passengers who do not provide the additional information will not be granted boarding passes, Hawley said, although he said he could envision rare exceptions.
"If you don't provide the data, then you are going to put yourself in a position where you are probably going to be a selectee," subject at a minimum to greater future security scrutiny, Chertoff added.
By taking over watch-list vetting from private industry, TSA also will be able to consistently apply the most up-to-date watch list information and sophisticated computer programs to catch variations of names, and to avoid the risk of giving sensitive data to foreign air carriers, Chertoff said.
To bolster their argument for the change, U.S. officials for the first time disclosed the number of individuals on the no-fly and selectee lists -- fewer than 2,500 and 16,000, respectively. Fewer than 10 percent of individuals on the no-fly list and less than half of those named on the selectee list are U.S. citizens, Chertoff said.
U.S. authorities have long refused to disclose the numbers, citing security concerns. Asked what had changed, Hawley cited the "secretary's judgment" that the public debate would be better informed by the lists' true size.
By comparison, since February 2007, DHS has received more than 43,500 requests for redress and completed 24,000 of them. About 2,700 remain under review and 16,500 await more documentation, TSA spokesman Christopher White said.
Hawley said authorities expect the added data will allow "99 percent" of travelers to avoid delays, or all but about 2,000 passengers a day. By comparison, the system now catches a passenger actually on the no-fly list about once a month, usually overseas, while actual "selectees" are encountered daily, he said.
Secure Flight cost taxpayers $200 million and five years to develop, and will cost an estimated $80 million a year to operate. It is one of a number of travel security measures that U.S. officials plan to implement in coming months to tighten the net against potential threats. Together they pose the greatest changes for passengers since TSA banned liquids and gels from carry-on baggage after authorities disrupted a British-based plot to bomb jetliners crossing the Atlantic in August 2005.
Starting next year, DHS has proposed requiring residents of roughly three-dozen friendly nations who can travel to the United States without a visa to register online with the U.S. government at least 72 hours before departure. Airlines and cruise lines also are being required to collect digital fingerprints from all foreign travelers as they leave the country.
Next June, DHS also is proposing to require all travelers entering the United States by land to present a passport or similar secure form of identification and proof of citizenship. Finally, DHS is pushing under its REAL ID initiative to require all domestic passengers to present more secure and standardized state-issued driver's licenses or equivalent ID cards as a condition of boarding flights.
In rolling out Secure Flight, homeland security officials left many details unclear. Final regulations are to be published by early November, after which airlines will have 60 days to begin sending required passenger data to TSA, and 270 days before they must have systems in place to do so.
Air carriers, particularly foreign airlines, say the changes duplicate other security measures. They say it will cost some of them millions of dollars and take several months to re-tool data systems to provide information, including passport numbers for passengers aboard foreign flights.
Privacy experts welcomed improvements to Secure Flight but said problems remained. U.S. officials said Secure Flight will not tap commercial data, conduct "data-mining" or generate risk scores on passengers, and will destroy information on most passengers after seven days. But the American Civil Liberties Union said the government still lacks adequate redress procedures for people mistakenly matched to secret watch-lists based on the government's master terrorist database, which identifies about 400,000 individuals.