- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

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 said yesterday.

“We need to be able to identify any suspected terrorists or other criminals [on board] before the plane takes off,” said Christiana Halsey of the department’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, adding that the department was working on a so-called Notice of Proposed Rule Making ” the first legal step down the regulatory path.

Miss Halsey said passenger names would, as at present, be checked by the bureau’s National Targeting Center against the United States’ consolidated terrorist watchlist ” which contains the names and aliases of several thousand people 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 before the plane took off, rather than ” as at present ” within 15 minutes of departure.

Other knowledgeable sources said the rule also would cover passengers who want to transit the United States on their way somewhere else, but Miss Halsey said she had no information about that.

During the past year, several trans-Atlantic flights have been diverted ” generally to Bangor, Maine ” after it was discovered that one or more passengers on board were matches for people suspected of terror links. In the most celebrated case, a Washington-bound jetliner was diverted in September after officials discovered that Yusuf 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 December 2003 and January 2004, as many as 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, we can minimize, if not entirely eliminate,” such costly diversions and cancellations, Miss Halsey said. “They are inconvenient for the passengers and expensive for the airlines.”

But airlines are unlikely to welcome the move. “We are not going to comment until we see something definitive,” said Diana Cronin of the Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. air carriers.

But other industry officials said the move could create serious logistical problems for airlines.

“Airlines make money when their planes are in the air,” said one industry lobbyist, adding that anything that increased wait times would squeeze an industry already beset by financial problems.

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