WASHINGTON – Top airline executives meet Thursday to discuss one of the more contentious privacy issues to arise since the Sept. 11 attacks: how to gather information on passengers to ensure dangerous people don't get on planes.
The government wants to test a computerized aviation security system that uses personal information about passengers from commercial databases and watch lists.
Airlines support the goals of the passenger-screening project, but none will step out on its own and offer the passenger data the government needs to test it.
The airlines are concerned about their customers' reaction to the project amid fears that it would open the door to government snooping and the possibility that people could be wrongly labeled security threats because their names were the same as those of terrorists. Airlines say they want to be sure the data is protected and that travelers have adequate recourse to fix any mistakes.
As part of a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, the Air Transport Association (search), which represents major airlines, will meet with Homeland Security officials to discuss steps the government is taking to protect passenger privacy.
An association spokesman said the airlines expect to hear details about the steps being taken to protect travelers' privacy (search).
"We need to see a plan," said spokesman Doug Wills. Otherwise, he said, "our fear is that you'll kill what we feel is a very promising program."
JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines also have come under fire for sharing passenger information with the government without letting customers know.
Since the attacks the government has sought a better way to check backgrounds of passengers. The proposal, called the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (search), or CAPPS II, would screen all passengers for possible terrorist activity by checking their names, addresses, phone numbers and birth dates against the databases. Each passenger would be given one of three ratings.
Suspected terrorists and violent criminals would be forbidden to fly; passengers who raise questions would receive extra security screening; most would simply go through routine screening.
Wills said the airline executives want assurances that the government will manage the security project itself rather than outsourcing it to private companies.
Nuala O'Connor Kelly, the Homeland Security Department's privacy officer, said the government doesn't intend to outsource the project, but is using contractors for technology, service and knowledge.
Still, airlines haven't been convinced it's necessary to verify passengers' identities against commercial databases, Wills said. But Kelly said the quality of information provided by private-sector data aggregators reduces the risk that a passenger would be misidentified as a terrorist.