Officials slam DHS air registry plan for foreign travelers

Aug. 25, 2008
Critics say plan will deter visitors, damage U.S. image

WASHINGTON -- Aviation and business leaders are assailing a Homeland Security plan to require millions of visitors a year to register online at least three days before flying to the USA. They say it will keep travelers away and damage the U.S. image abroad.

A program taking effect Jan. 12 aims to tighten security by giving authorities more time to check for terrorism links and immigration issues among people from 27 friendly nations -- including Spain, Great Britain and Italy -- before they fly to the USA.

The government now gets such passenger records 30 minutes before flight doors close.

The new program will not affect U.S. citizens. It applies to about 14 million foreigners in the visa-waiver program, which allows residents of certain countries to travel to the U.S. for 90 days or less without a visa.

Airlines and airports say the new requirement will cause many travelers to be barred from their U.S.-bound flights because they will show up at airports not knowing they should have registered with the Homeland Security Department.

"The U.S. already has a bad reputation in terms of the difficulty of international travel, and this could make it even worse," said Steve Lott of the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group. "We foresee a lot of passengers getting to the airport having no idea what (the new program) is."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce told the department in a letter that the program "could have a serious detrimental effect on our economy" by keeping out business travelers and tourists. The Travel Industry Association said "air carriers could face chaos at check-in counters." The groups want the Jan. 12 start date postponed.

The dispute comes months after airlines protested a Homeland Security plan to require them to collect fingerprints from foreign travelers flying out of the USA.

Kathy Kraninger, Homeland Security deputy assistant secretary for policy, said officials will not bar unregistered passengers from flying to the USA starting Jan. 12.

"There's certainly going to be a phase-in in terms of enforcement," Kraninger said.

The program was mandated last year by Congress. Registration will give the department time to run a background check similar to what is done for visa applicants.

"It's certainly a vulnerability," Kraninger said of the 20-year-old visa-waiver program.

Kraninger said European leaders have indicated they will create similar programs, requiring U.S. residents to register online before visiting overseas.