All Airlines Gathering Passenger Information to Check Against Terror Lists

WASHINGTON -- All 197 airlines that fly to the United States are now collecting names, genders and birth dates of passengers so the government can check them against terror watch lists before they fly, the Obama administration announced Tuesday. 

Getting all air carriers that travel to or through the United States to provide this information marks a milestone in the government's counterterror efforts and completes a recommendation of the special commission that studied government shortcomings before and after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The program, called Secure Flight, has been delayed for years because of privacy problems and went through three versions before it was approved. It is designed to give U.S. authorities more time to identify and remove suspected terrorists from flights and reduce instances when passengers are mistaken for people on terror watch lists. 

Misidentification of passengers has been one of the biggest inconveniences in post-Sept. 11 air travel, and widely known for putting thousands of innocent travelers and well-known figures such as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy through extensive searching and questioning before they were allowed to fly. 

Previously, airlines have been responsible for checking passenger lists against terror watch lists. But the airlines did not have any information other than a name. Now the screening is done by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. The more information available about a passenger, the less likely a passenger will be mistaken for someone on a watch list. When someone makes a flight reservation, that information goes to the Secure Flight database within seconds, TSA Administrator John Pistole said. 

Compliance with the program has been phased in over the past year, and many travelers already have been supplying their gender, birth dates and full names as they appear on government identification when they buy their tickets. Pistole said it is too early to tell whether there have been fewer instances of mistaken identities now that the new system is in place. "It's just still too early to say," he said. "If six months from now we haven't seen a reduction, then that will concern me."