The U.S. government plans to force foreign airlines flying over American soil to turn over the names of passengers on board or check the names against U.S. government watch lists in an effort to prevent terrorists from entering U.S. airspace.
Under current rules, overseas carriers are required to provide passenger manifests to U.S. officials within 15 minutes of takeoff if they are to land in the United States, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
Officials have been concerned that terrorists may try to hijack a plane over the United States and crash it into a building, as occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. Officials acknowledge, however, that no credible intelligence exists indicating such a plot.
"We are currently considering a measure that would require foreign carriers to vet their passenger manifests against the 'no-fly' list and 'selectee' lists on overflights," said TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark. The no-fly list is a secret list of thousands of names of known or suspected terrorists who may pose a threat to U.S. aviation. The selectee list contains the names of individuals who are not known terrorists but present a possible threat to the airplane.
The proposal has angered European, Mexican and Canadian airlines, which operate most of the 500 estimated daily overflights. If foreign airlines do not comply with the order, which is expected to be issued in coming weeks, they could have to reroute flights, adding time and cost to the journeys. At least one carrier, Aeromexico, claims the rule would violate international aviation agreements.
The TSA's proposal, discussed in recent days with foreign leaders, was prompted by a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Mexico on April 8 that was prohibited from flying over American airspace because two passengers were found to be on the U.S. government's no-fly list.
The KLM flight, a specially configured 747 with 278 passengers and 15 horses on board, was five hours into its journey when Mexican authorities alerted U.S. officials about two Saudi passengers on board. TSA officials decided not to allow the plane to continue on its usual route over the United States.
The Canadian government offered the plane an option to land on its territory if the aircraft did not have enough fuel for a return trip, a Canadian official said. But KLM decided to turn the plane around for the five-hour flight back to Amsterdam out "of interest to the passengers and animals," KLM spokesman Hugo Baas said in an e-mail. "The assigned airport was not suitable for handling a 747 in this configuration." KLM is a leading air transporter of horses and operates an animal hospital at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
The two Saudi passengers on the KLM flight were men who trained at the same Arizona flight school as Sept. 11 hijacker Hani Hanjour, according a law enforcement source. The men, according to aviation sources, were questioned by Dutch officials and eventually allowed to fly back to Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials did not interview the men, according to law enforcement and Homeland Security sources.
A Homeland Security official familiar with the proposed rules said U.S. and foreign officials are negotiating over whether airlines or the U.S. government would check passenger names against the watch lists. If any names match those on the lists, airlines would have to undertake new security measures.
For example, if a flight from Canada to Mexico were to have a passenger whose name matched one on the no-fly list, the flight would not be allowed into U.S. airspace. The passenger would have to be removed from the flight, or if the plane happened to already be in the air, it would have to fly around the United States to reach its destination, according to officials familiar with the plans. Similarly, if a passenger's name were to match one on the selectee list, the passenger would have to undergo more thorough security screening before boarding the plane, the sourcesaid.
Aeromexico, which has 18 weekly flights from Mexico City that cross U.S. airspace on their way to Europe, said that the U.S. proposal might violate international transit agreements and that it is consulting with the Mexican transportation department to "present our legal position for this potential requirement."
"This potential directive will restrict our privilege to fly across U.S. territory without landing, and to land for non-traffic purposes," said Fernando Ceballos, Aeromexico's assistant director for airport operations, in an e-mailed statement. If the TSA issues the requirement, he said, it would not be practical to fly around the U.S. coast. "Flying over water along the coast is not an option for Aeromexico as increased flight times would be prohibitive given the type of aircraft we use, our slots and crew requirements."
TSA's spokesman Clark said, "We are working with our international partners to give thoughtful consideration to all aspects of the impact of this measure."
The rule change would affect many of Canada's estimated 1,000 weekly overflights, including domestic flights such as Montreal to Toronto, which fly over the United States because of geography and weather patterns. "We're currently gathering information from air carriers to evaluate the impact that the proposed amendment would have," said Vanessa Vermette, spokeswoman for Transport Canada.
KLM said that it is now checking its passenger lists against U.S. watch lists for its overflights, following the recent incident.
"It is not up to an airline to judge the security measures of individual countries," KLM spokesman Baas said. "However, it is up to the responsible authorities of each country to safeguard that measures do not have negative counter effects on the daily operation of the airlines."