Airlines say they lack the IT for US-VISIT

Airlines lack the information technology infrastructure needed to comply with a Homeland Security Department proposal that would put carriers in charge of collecting biometric information from most foreign travelers when they leave the United States, according to lobbying groups representing that industry.

Ken Dunlap, the International Air Transport Association’s director of security for North America, said that the DHS’ proposed rule that would place the airlines in charge of collecting certain travelers fingerprints as they leave the country “completely ignores the existing IT infrastructure of the industry.” He also said airlines did not have the bandwidth to transmit even the low-resolution fingerprints and that IT infrastructure upgrades could take seven months with some airlines having to make significant changes.

Dunlap, whose association represents 230 airlines from around the world, made the comments today at a public hearing on DHS’ proposed plan for meeting a congressional mandate that requires DHS to expand the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT).

A law requires the department to also collect biometric information from non-immigrant travelers as they leave the country. DHS has already been collecting biometric data from such travelers when they arrive in the United States. 

DHS would use the biometric data collected by the airlines to create an exit record and verify the identity of the traveler against entry data stored in DHS’ Automated Biometric Identification System and the Arrival and Departure Information System. The airlines would send the biometric data in a message formatted in Extensible Markup Language (XML) which would contain a biometric image along with biographic data such as the person's first and last names, date of birth, and the date and time the fingerprints were taken.

The airline industry has opposed the department’s proposal to put the carriers in charge of the process even before the proposed rule was released April 22.

Dunlap said airlines data networks send about 100 kilobytes of data to DHS per flight, but if biometrics were required that number would jump from 34 megabytes for low resolution fingerprints or to 128 megabytes for high resolution of data sent per flight. None of the airlines’ data networks could handle that, he said. He also said there is no XML standard for the industry.

A spokeswoman for the US-VISIT program said the purpose of the public hearing was to listen to concerns from the public and would not comment on whether changes would be introduced to the rule. The rule would become final on June 23 and DHS plans to implement the program by January 2009.

Perhaps the major problem with the rule for the airlines is its cost; depending on when in the travel process the fingerprints are collected at the departure airport, DHS estimates that the exit program could cost between $3.6 billion and $6.4 billion over 10 years. Dunlap says the price could be even higher than that, calling it a “staggering number.”

The disparity in cost estimates from DHS depends on where in the process airlines decide to collect the prints. DHS would not require that fingerprints be collected from a specific place in the airports, but DHS suggests that airline officials minimize disruptions by making it part of normal business operations.

Clive Wright, the chairman of the Aviation Assembly — which is comprised of representatives from 34 countries' embassies and the European Commission on aviation issues, said the proposed rule was a significant expansion of the airlines' involvement in immigration issues.

Wright is also the first secretary for transport policy at the British Embassy in Washington.

He said many airlines have been opting for business models that increasingly employ technology to make the check-in process more automated and self-service based an that the rule would require them to reverse that process.

“The implication of imposing an expensive government function on an industry already facing severe financial constraints…are so severe that they require further consultation, reflection and possible reworking,” he said.

Many of the speakers at the hearing acknowledged that DHS was facing an unfunded mandate from Congress but urged the department to rework or scrap the proposed rule.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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