Better Air Passenger Prescreening Expected in 2009

October 22, 2008 - 4:17 PM
A long-delayed government program designed to more accurately prescreen the names of airline passengers against terror watch lists is expected to begin early next year.
Washington (AP) - A long-delayed government program designed to more accurately prescreen the names of airline passengers against terror watch lists is expected to begin early next year.
 
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the final rule for the program, called Secure Flight, which would validate air travelers' information so there's less chance a person could be mistaken for someone else on a watch list. The program has been delayed several times because of privacy concerns.
 
Misidentification of passengers has been one of the biggest inconveniences in post-Sept. 11 air travel, and widely known for putting Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a few infants and thousands of innocent U.S. residents through extensive searching and questioning before they were allowed to fly.
 
Currently, passenger prescreening for domestic flights is handled by the individual airlines. But airlines do not always tap into the most up-to-date watch lists, which contain names of people whom intelligence agencies have determined should not be on planes. Under the new program, the airlines will be responsible for collecting a passenger's full name, gender and birth date, as opposed to the current practice of only collecting the passenger's name.
 
"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 prescreening process, ultimately reducing the number of misidentification issues."
 
The program will be phased in during the first half of next year.
 
One industry association, the International Air Transport Association, is not happy with the final rule because it will cost the airlines so much money to adapt their systems to the needs of Secure Flight. Association spokesman Steve Lott said the customer inevitably will bear the additional costs of the program.
 
The early sharing of passenger information was designed to give U.S. authorities more time to identify and remove from flights suspected terrorists like Richard Reid, who tried to ignite a shoe bomb on a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2001.
 
This is the third version of the air passenger prescreening program that became a key part of aviation security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since October 1, 2001, the federal government has spent $240 million on the program, according to budget statistics, and $82 million is available for 2009.
 
Prior to that, the Federal Aviation Administration oversaw the first iteration, which began in 1998, according to 9/11 Commission research. The 1998 program required air carriers to use a computer-assisted passenger prescreening program to single out passengers who needed additional screening.
 
The FAA rules required that the airline only screen that passenger's checked baggage for explosives and not the passenger or the passenger's carryon bags. Later versions of this program became controversial because of data mining elements that had aroused privacy concerns. Secure Flight does not include data mining, which is the computerized searching of large databanks of information for clues to the identities of terrorists or criminals.
 
Congress had barred the Bush administration from launching Secure Flight after it was learned that it acquired live data for testing rather than using made-up data. But since then, the program has been tested and reviewed and includes a privacy impact statement.
 
The Transportation Security Administration has a redress program for passengers who believe they were misidentified with names on the terror watch list. As of Sept. 30, there were more than 43,500 requests for redress, according to the TSA. Passenger redress will continue to be available after Secure Flight is implemented.
 
The Secure Flight program will apply to international flights in late 2009, officials said.