Thursday, October 11, 2007

U.S. demands passenger lists for sun flights

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

The U.S. government has angered Canada's airlines with a proposal to order them to hand over personal information about passengers who take flights that go south over U.S. airspace en route to sunny destinations.

Although the planes wouldn't take off from or land on American soil, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is proposing that Canadian carriers send passenger manifests up to 72 hours in advance of departures to popular winter escapes such as Mexico and the Caribbean.

Under the U.S. Secure Flight program, there would be the same requirement to transmit data on northbound return flights from foreign holiday destinations.

The broader goal is to “prevent certain known or suspected terrorists from boarding aircraft where they may jeopardize the lives of passengers and others,” Homeland Security's Transportation Security Agency said in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The deadline to file comments on the proposal is Oct. 22, and the Air Transport Association of Canada is gearing up to voice its outrage on behalf of Canadian airlines.

“We're already vetting our passengers against the Canadian no-fly list,” ATAC policy vice-president Fred Gaspar said yesterday in an interview.

“If you happen to go through some part of U.S. airspace, the U.S. may end up intercepting your plane and forcing you to land. That's a scenario that we don't want to go through.”

This is the TSA's latest effort to toughen passenger screening. It introduced Secure Flight plans in 2004, but suspended their development early last year amid widespread criticisms from privacy advocates.

Mr. Gaspar said ATAC officials thought Canadian carriers had managed to escape the widening net of the TSA, so they were shocked to recently discover the proposed changes, after combing through a 37-page document in the U.S. government's Federal Register.

“Our position is that it just does not make sense in light of the fact that Canada has its own no-fly list, which was developed very closely and in co-operation with U.S authorities,” he said.

The U.S. plan will be a major headache for Canadian airlines and tour operators because they will need to assign staff to assemble the data, and also ensure their software is compatible with the U.S. electronic acceptance systems.

“There are also privacy concerns,” Mr. Gaspar said. “This is a data-fishing expedition by a third-party government. What makes this problematic is that you're heading to another country and you're not trying to get into the U.S. What's the point of this co-operative approach if our list isn't deemed to be good enough for the United States? They're using a hammer to swat a fly.”

Canadian airlines would be required to turn over the full name of passengers as it appears on passports, date of birth, gender and, if applicable, the so-called “known traveller number” – a unique number assigned to travellers that the U.S. government has previously deemed do not pose a security threat. Over and above that information, the TSA will encourage Canadian carriers to send other data, if available, including a passenger's itinerary with the departure airport code, airline, departure time, arrival time and arrival airport code.

The TSA proposal would cover flights operating between two international points that go over the airspace of the lower 48 U.S. states, affecting mostly those run by Canadian carriers to winter getaways such as Mexico, Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Excluded from the plan are flights between two points in Canada, such as Toronto-Vancouver, in which the flight path temporarily crosses into U.S. airspace.

With the strong loonie making sunny destinations more affordable, a busy winter holiday season is expected for Canadian firms such as Air Canada, WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Transat A.T. Inc., analysts say.

Canada's no-fly list, the Passenger Protect program, took effect on June 18. Those named on the Canadian list are believed to pose an immediate threat to air security, but that list of up to 2,000 names is much shorter than the U.S. terrorist watch list developed after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Separately, the International Air Transport Association plans to raise its concerns about the TSA's sweeping data-collection proposals that would cover flights between U.S. cities, as wells as flights between the United States and foreign airports. After a final ruling is published, airlines would have 60 days to comply.

The TSA said it is committed to safeguarding passenger privacy. “The vast majority of records are expected to be destroyed within seven days of completion of directional travel,” the TSA said in the Federal Register.

“Personal information will only be disclosed to, and used by, authorized individuals who have a need to know the information in order to perform their duties.”