- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Toronto family boarding an Air Canada nonstop flight to Cancun, Mexico, soon will need Uncle Sam’s permission before starting their vacation, according to a new U.S. security measure that is causing a commotion north of the border.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) by the end of the year will require passenger information for all international flights that pass over the U.S. - even those that never touch down on American soil. The measure has caused a flurry of complaints in Canada that Washington is overreacting to security concerns at the expense of Canadian sovereignty.

“The American obsession with security has literally reached new heights of paranoia,” said an editorial last week in the Calgary Herald. “The thought of the U.S. government denying boarding passes to travelers on outbound Canadian flights direct to Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Jamaica or Havana is another example that the terrorists have won.”

The TSA policy applies to all countries, but will have a particular impact on Canada, where a high percentage of international flights, especially to Latin America and Asia, have to pass over U.S. territory, either the continental U.S. or Alaska.

Under the TSA’s “Secure Flight” system, airlines will no longer issue boarding passes until a passenger’s personal information has been screened and cleared through TSA databases.

The initiative calls for airlines to submit personal information about passengers traveling through U.S. airspace 72 hours before departure. If any names match those on the U.S. “no fly” list, the prospective passengers will go through a secondary screening and could be barred from flying.

TSA, which operates under the Homeland Security Department, already has taken over the screenings of passengers on flights within the U.S. and its territories.

Joe Volpe of Canada’s Liberal Party, the minority leader in the House for transportation issues, characterized the TSA request as excessive. He said Ottawa has allocated billions of dollars in recent years to beef up airport security and is up to the task to monitor potential terrorist activity for flights to - and thousands of feet above - the U.S.

“We have done everything, including the cartwheels the Americans wanted us to perform, in order to ensure that the U.S. northern border is safe and meets all the standards of American interests,” Mr. Volpe told The Washington Times.

“The Americans, notwithstanding our good relationship, don’t give a fig about the measures we’ve got in place. They don’t have any confidence in them.”

Many Canadians also are upset with their government over legislation quietly introduced in Parliament last month that calls for Canada’s full compliance with the TSA provision. The bill was submitted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party without debate on the final day of the parliamentary session.

“This has to rank as one of the biggest sellouts of the Canadian identity imaginable,” Mr. Volpe said. “It appears like such a small thing, but it’s shameful.”

Homeland Security spokeswoman Sterling Payne said that “the requirement is not in place yet” for dealing with countries that don’t comply with the Secure Flight program and that speculating on such a scenario would be premature.

When asked whether the U.S. government pressured Canada to comply, TSA spokeswoman Jonella J. Culmer, in an e-mail response, answered that “the United States government exercises complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace of the United States.”

TSA will continue to work closely with its international partners during Secure Flight’s implementation, as we have a shared interest in keeping air travel safe for all travelers,” Ms. Culmer said.

Homeland Security officials contend that the United States has the right to refuse any aircraft entry into U.S. airspace for security reasons, based on the internationally recognized Convention on International Civil Aviation, commonly called the Chicago Convention.

Jim Burnley, who served as a U.S. Transportation Department secretary during the Reagan administration, agrees, saying that the fundamental premise of international aviation law is that each country has domain over its airspace.

“My fundamental reaction to [Canadian concerns] is, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Mr. Burnley said. “After 9/11, how could anyone in Canada question the desire of the U.S. government to know who are on aircraft flying in U.S. airspace? It seems to me a very straightforward proposition.”

Canada’s Mr. Volpe said he is sympathetic to the United States‘ unique security concerns. He added that he has had a good working relationship with his American counterparts over the years and is hopeful that a compromise can be reached this time.

“We’ll do what we need to do, but let’s negotiate out what needs to be done,” he said. “We can’t go ahead and see how high we can jump every time somebody says boo.”

The Canadian lawmaker added that the U.S. government hasn’t said what will happen if Canada fails to comply with TSA’s demand.

“What they’ve really said is, ‘We’ll refuse the right to your companies to fly over American airspace.’ Well, what does that mean?” Mr. Volpe said. “Does that mean they get an F-18 out there as soon as it comes across the American border?”

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