WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The Department of Homeland Security is drafting a rule that will require airlines to pass on passenger manifest information as much as an hour before the departure of international flights bound for the United States, officials confirmed to United Press International Thursday.
"We need to be able to identify any suspected terrorists or other criminals (on board) before the plane takes off," Christiana Halsey of the department's Customs and Border Protection directorate said, adding that the department was working on a so-called Notice of Proposed Rule Making -- the first legal step down the regulatory path.
The regulation then goes through several drafts, each of which is published for comment by interested parties before being finalized by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.
Industry representatives declined to comment for the record in advance of the notice's publication but fretted privately that the logistical demands would be another blow to the financially battered airlines. One congressional official suggested that the federal government might have to underwrite any additional costs incurred.
Halsey said that the passenger names would, as at present, be checked by the directorate's National Targeting Center against the United States' consolidated terrorist watchlist -- which contains the names and aliases of thousands individuals thought linked to terrorism -- and against several other law-enforcement databases.
"We're not just looking for terrorists," she said.
All that would change is that airlines would have to submit the data up to one hour before the plane takes off, rather than within 15 minutes of departure under current procedures.
Other knowledgeable sources said the rule would also cover passengers who wanted to transit the United States on their way somewhere else, but Halsey said she had no information about that.
In August 2003 the so-called Transit-Without-Visa program -- under which foreigners with onward flights could enter U.S. airline transit lounges regardless of whether they were entitled to enter the country or not -- was suspended indefinitely by the United States.
The program was beneficial for airlines and U.S. airports, which foreigners could use as hubs for intercontinental flights without having to obtain a U.S. visa.
But the interrogation of Sept. 11, 2001, planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees had revealed that the al-Qaida terror network saw the program as a loophole in U.S. border security -- a way to get potential hijackers into planes over American cities.
The option the department is currently working on, according to one person familiar with it, would create one group of passengers -- U.S. citizens, foreign visa holders and nationals of Canada and the so-called visa-waiver nations -- who could transit the country without additional security checks.
Nationals of a second group of countries would also be eligible to transit if their passenger information was received long enough in advance of their departure.
Now that there is a single terror watchlist, officials explain, it makes much less difference whether it is checked weeks in advance of a trip by a consular officer at a U.S. embassy as part of a visa issuance process or hours in advance of a plane's departure by a Customs and Border Protection official at the directorate's National Targeting Center.
Indeed, the proposed change to the rule about the passenger manifests -- known as the Advanced Passenger Information System -- overlaps with and to a certain extent renders moot the protracted tussle between Homeland Security and the European Union over the so-called Passenger Name Record.
PNR data, a much more extensive record including credit-card and frequent-flyer details as well as religious dietary preferences, has -- partly for that reason -- become a real cause celebre among privacy advocates in Europe, while APIS, which has been submitted by airlines to U.S Immigration and Customs authorities for years, has largely escaped notice.
Officials insist -- not entirely convincingly -- that, either way, getting passenger information to U.S. authorities early will benefit the airlines and their customers.
Over the past year several transatlantic flights have been diverted -- generally to Bangor, Maine, the Eastern-most major U.S. airport -- after it emerged that one or more passengers on board were matches for individuals with suspected terror links.
In the most celebrated case a Washington, D.C.-bound jetliner was diverted last September after officials discovered that Yusef Islam -- better known as the singer Cat Stevens -- was on board.
He was deported after being questioned. Officials said at the time that his name was on a "no fly" list and that he should not have been allowed to board the plane.
And during the winter of 2004 a dozen flights from London and Paris were canceled -- in some cases after names thought linked to terrorism turned up on passenger manifests.
"If we get the information in advance," said Halsey, "we can minimize -- if not entirely eliminate" such costly diversions and cancellations. "They are inconvenient for the passengers and expensive for the airlines."
But airlines seem unlikely to welcome the move, nonetheless.
"We are not going to comment until we see something definitive," said Diana Cronin of the Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. carriers.
Other industry sources said privately the move could create serious logistical problems for airlines, which currently do not finalize their passenger manifests until the doors of the plane close at the gate as the plane departs.
"Airlines make money when their planes are in the air," said one industry lobbyist, pointing out that anything that increases wait times between flights would squeeze an industry already beset by financial crisis.
"From our perspective," Ed Fluhr, manager of legislative affairs at the Travel Industry Association of America, told UPI, "the U.S. government recently has done a good job of explaining new security measures" such as the digital fingerprinting and photographing of all foreign visitors arriving by air and sea under the US-VISIT program.
But he added that, "Anything that adds to the perception -- or the reality -- of unnecessarily intrusive security measures can be a reason for a traveler to go elsewhere."
DHS spokesman Dennis Murphy said the department was very sensitive to the needs of the traveler and the airline industry. "The objective is to get the information early enough in the process without unduly impacting airlines and their passengers.
"We are making a huge effort to counter the impression of fortress America," he said, alluding to fears that the introduction of US-VISIT would damage the image of the United States as a tourist destination.
Such concerns have so far proved largely groundless, although some industry analysts fret that the weak dollar may be masking the deterrent effect on visitors from Europe and Asia of being fingerprinted upon entry.
Nonetheless, officials say they recognize industry concerns about the logistical issues the new rule raises and are working with the airlines to allay them.
"We know there are issues with connecting flights," said Halsey. "We know there is concern" about passengers who arrive or cancel their departure at the last minute.
"We know there might be additional costs."
She said the department was listening to the industry's concerns. "We need the stakeholders on board," she said.
One senior congressional staffer was dismissive of industry concerns.
"They'll complain about the cost, they'll warn about delays. ... They'll make problems," he said, adding, "No one likes to be regulated. ... That's capitalism."
He predicted that, in the end, the airlines would "suck it up" but try to stick the taxpayer with any bill.
"There may be cost issues," he said, adding that the industry "lived and died by its margins."
When Congress mandated hardened cockpit doors in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the staffer recalled, lawmakers made sure the industry was reimbursed for the cost.
"If that (additional cost of the new rule) can be demonstrated, I'm sure Congress would be receptive to the idea of doing that again," he said.
None of the officials UPI spoke to cared to make a prediction about when the rule notice would be published.
"It is still in the inter-agency process," said Murphy.
(Please send comments to [email protected].)