Secure Flight to take off next year

Early next year, the Transportation Security Administration will begin taking over responsibility for screening air travelers against subsets of the government's consolidated terrorist watch list.

The Homeland Security Department, which includes TSA, released the final rule for its Secure Flight passenger screening program today. Officials say the rule will be published in the Federal Register in the near future and will become effective 60 days after its publication.

Under Secure Flight, TSA will take over responsibility for pre-departure watch-list matching in two phases.

It will handle the process for passengers on domestic flights starting in early 2009. The second phase, during which TSA will take over the screening of passengers on international flights to or from the United States, is scheduled to begin in late 2009. TSA will also assume responsibility for screening passengers on flights that pass over the continental United States.

Currently, aircraft operators, such as commercial airlines, are responsible for comparing domestic flight passenger data to subsets of the consolidated terrorist watch list that are related to aviation security, such as the no-fly and selectee lists.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection performs the matching function for international flights to or from the United States as part of its overall screening of travelers. DHS’ final rule states that Secure Flight complements the CBP system, and responsibility for international flights will also be transferred to TSA.

The final rule marks a milestone in DHS’ effort to take over passenger screening as required by a 2004 law. Previous attempts faced a series of delays spurred in part by concerns about privacy. DHS officials said the Secure Flight program has addressed those issues.

Under the new program, aircraft operators will be required to collect a passenger’s full name, date of birth and gender and give that information to TSA, which will compare it to the relevant watch list subsets.

TSA will tell airlines whether they are authorized to print a boarding pass for the passenger and whether the individual has been flagged for additional screening.

Officials say Secure Flight will improve security and reduce misidentifications. Federal authorities have come under fire for highly publicized examples of individuals facing consistent delays and difficulty when traveling because their names match someone else’s on the no-fly or other terrorist watch list.

“We know that threats to our aviation system persist, and Secure Flight will help us better protect the traveling public while creating a more consistent passenger prescreening process, ultimately reducing the number of misidentification issues,” DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

Under Secure Flight, people who believe they have been misidentified can turn to the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.

Officials at the Air Transport Association, which represents large U.S. airlines, said they welcomed the final rule.

It states that TSA anticipates that aircraft operators will be able to collect and transmit all the necessary data within nine months of the rule’s publication in the Federal Register.

TSA will provide written notification to operators regarding when the agency will take over the process. Operational testing of the program will be done in phases, the rule states.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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