- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Angry airline executives yesterday criticized proposed rules that would make them collect fingerprints from foreigners leaving the United States as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s biometric border-control system, U.S.-VISIT.

They say the industry, already reeling from high fuel prices and safety concerns and beset by bankruptcies, cannot shoulder the $2 billion cost of the plan and should not be doing the work of immigration and law enforcement officials.

“Given the fragile financial state of the industry, it is ludicrous to outsource this job — which is properly a government function,” said Steve Lott, North American communications director for the International Air Transport Association.

“You are turning airline employees into law enforcement and immigration officials,” said Mr. Lott. “This is like the IRS outsourcing tax collection to accountants. … It makes no sense.”

Government estimates of the 10-year cost of the fingerprinting program range from $2.6 billion to $6.4 billion, depending on how the rules are implemented and how the cost is counted.

“The industry just can’t afford it,” Mr. Lott said. “These costs will have to be passed on to the consumer.”

He said the industry would vigorously oppose the plan, rolled out yesterday by DHS officials in the form of a “notice of proposed rule-making,” which kicks off a 60-day public comment period.

The association will be filing comments and lobbying its supporters in Congress, Mr. Lott said.

The proposed rule envisions the new fingerprinting procedures being in place by January, the first step in implementing the exit portion of U.S.-VISIT, a system that biometrically verifies the identity of most foreign visitors arriving in the United States through an inkless fingerprint scan and a digital photograph.

The exit portion, a congressionally mandated extension to the system, will enable DHS to confirm that a visitor has left the country — and identify those who might be illegally overstaying their visas.

“We’ve built an effective entry system, and combined with the proposed exit system, we’ll have made a quantum leap in America’s border security,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday. He added that he looked forward to “an ongoing dialogue on solutions” with the aviation industry.

DHS has wrestled for more than two years with the practicalities of collecting fingerprints from departing passengers. Last May, it abandoned pilot projects at several airports that used a stand-alone process for taking the finger-scans at small, ATM-like kiosks in airport departure lounges. Now officials say biometric checks will have to be integrated into the existing check-in process for passengers leaving the country.

But that alarms airlines that have been working for several years to replace traditional counter check-in with an increasingly virtual process.

Mr. Lott said the “hassle factor” would be a major problem as passengers struggled with unfamiliar procedures and technology.

“It will create long lines at a time when the industry is increasingly trying to offer passengers alternatives to the traditional check-in counter” by allowing passengers to check in online using mobile phones, personal digital assistants and airport kiosks.

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