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 yesterday ordered 72 carriers to turn over historical passengers records by Nov. 23 so that the agency 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 that the government should not be regularly combing through airline passenger lists. The TSA has received more than 500 comments from people and companies about the program, most of them critical.
The TSA acknowledged yesterday 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 that shared 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, the assistant administrator of transportation vetting and credentialing. "There's no question we're going to have close collaboration [with the European Commission]. What form that would take at the end, we don't know yet."
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 yesterday.
TSA said it didn't believe carriers would legally challenge the order or refuse to go along.
"We're in great shape as we enter the testing phase" of the program, Oberman said. He said if all goes according to plan, the new system will go into operation in late spring or early summer of 2005.
Oberman said the TSA had not yet picked a contractor to help conduct the testing but planned to do so shortly.
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 moments 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 who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"U.S. airlines have long-standing concerns that center on privacy and operational issues," said James C. May, chief executive of the ATA. "We hope that many of the issues will be successfully addressed during the test phase of Secure Flight."