WASHINGTON – The final rule for the nation's air passenger screening program — delayed several times over privacy concerns — is to be announced Wednesday, with the hope that it will minimize the number of people mistaken for terrorists.
Once the rule is implemented early next year, the government will screen passengers against terrorist watch lists before they board planes. The new program, called Secure Flight, is supposed to validate travelers' information so that there's less chance an individual could be mistaken for someone else on a terrorist watch list.
Mistaken identifications have been one of the biggest inconveniences in post-9/11 air travel, and widely known for putting Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a few infants and thousands of innocent U.S. residents through extensive searching and questioning before they were allowed to fly.
Currently, passenger screening for domestic flights is handled by the individual airlines. But those airlines do not always tap into the most up-to-date watch lists which contain names of people whom intelligence agencies determined should not be allowed to fly. Under the new program, the airlines will be responsible for collecting a passenger's full name, gender and birth date, opposed to the current practice of only collecting the passengers' name.
"This should eliminate the vast majority of misidentifications and significantly reduce instances where travelers believe, or are even told by airlines, that they are on a watch list," said a Homeland Security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the final rule had not been announced yet by Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The early sharing of passenger information was designed to give U.S. authorities more time to identify and remove from flights suspected terrorists like Richard Reid, who attempted to light a shoe bomb on a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2001.
This is the third version of the air passenger prescreening program that became a key part of aviation security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Federal Aviation Administration oversaw the first iteration which began in 1998, according to 9/11 Commission research. This program required air carriers to use a computer-assisted passenger prescreening program to single out passengers in need of additional screening.
The FAA rules required that the airline only screen that passenger's checked baggage for explosives and not the passenger or the passenger's carryon bags. Later versions of this program became controversial because of so-called data mining elements that had aroused privacy concerns. Secure Flight does not include data mining, which is the computerized searching of large data banks of information for clues to the identity of terrorists or criminals.
Congress had barred the administration from launching the Secure Flight program after it was learned that it acquired live data for testing rather than using made-up data. But since then, the program has been tested and reviewed and includes a privacy impact statement. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is expected to announce the final rule at Reagan National Airport Wednesday.
The Transportation Security Administration has a redress program for passengers who believe they were misidentified with names on the terror watch list. As of Sept. 30, there were more than 43,500 requests for redress, according to TSA. Passenger redress will continue to be available after Secure Flight is implemented.