TSA passenger screening plan needs new IT

The Transportation Security Administration’s program to screen air travelers requires a transformation of the systems the government and airlines use to share passenger data.

The Transportation Security Administration’s program to take over screening air travelers against the government watch lists starting early next year will require a transformation of the information technology systems that the government and airlines use to communicate passenger data.

The announcement last week of the final rule for the program, named Secure Flight, was a significant milestone in the long-standing effort to give TSA control of prescreening air passengers against terrorist watch lists, as required by a 2004 law. Under the new program, aircraft operators will be required to provide every passenger’s information to TSA, which will compare that information to the relevant watch list subsets and tell the airline whether it is authorized to print a boarding pass.

However, the move from publishing the rule to actually transferring the process to TSA will take some time and a lot of money. The agency plans to begin to take over the function for domestic flights in early 2009 and for international flights later that year.

The Homeland Security Department estimates it will cost airlines about $498.8 million to reprogram and maintain their computer systems over the next 10 years, and an additional $130 million for data collection to accommodate the program. The government will have to pay $1.43 billion over the same time period.

Despite the IT-related costs, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said he thought that, on balance, the rule would be a positive from an economic standpoint. 

However, reaction has been mixed from the airlines. Steve Lott, a spokesman from the International Air Transport Association, which represents 230 U.S. and international airlines, said the rule will require some airlines to do a “massive overhaul” of their systems’ programming structures to link their reservations and departure systems.

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