Intense scrutiny of PIA passengers in US likely
By Amir Mateen
WASHINGTON: Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) passengers may be subjected to more intensive inspections in the US as the airline has not complied with the new US security standards.
Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, is among those countries that had not made arrangements for electronically transferring advance lists of passengers so far. The US Customs had warned of heightened inspections for those that have not complied by Thursday.
Shahid Afzal Khan, marketing manager in the PIA New York office, was quoted in The New York Times saying that he did not know if his company was providing the required information. However, his station manager Zahid Afridi, when approached on telephone later, contradicted his subordinate and claimed that the matter was being resolved. He was already in correspondence with the PIA authorities in Karachi to fulfil the required measures and a memorandum of understanding would be signed with the US Customs later on Tuesday. He was hopeful that Pakistani passengers would not be subjected to extra scrutiny.
This new requirement was in addition to the already over stringent measures being taken in case of Pakistani passengers no matter which flight they come on. There have been frequent complaints by the Pakistani community about their racial profiling at American airports.
According to The New York Times, the US has told Saudi, Russian, Chinese, Pakistani and other foreign airlines that their passengers will be put through extremely rigorous and lengthy searches if the airlines did not provide information needed to identify potential terrorists.
The new aviation security law, signed by President Bush on November 19, requires foreign carriers to cooperate. Under the law, airlines had two months to begin the electronic transmission of passenger lists for all flights to the US. But the commissioner of customs, Robert C Bonner, sent letters to the airlines last week saying that they must comply earlier, by Thursday, or else customs inspectors will search "all hand-carried and checked baggage on every flight arriving in the US." The searches could add hours to the clearance process for overseas travellers.
The US officials have been encouraging airlines to participate in the automated system used to compare biographical data on international air travellers with lists of suspected terrorists and criminals. The lists are compiled by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The computer system, operated by the US Customs Service, is known as the Advance Passenger Information System. Customs officers used the system to check the names of 57 million travellers who entered the US on 387,000 flights last year. Those passengers accounted for 85 per cent of the 67 million air travellers arriving in the country.
Reports suggest that more than 90 carriers have been voluntarily supplying data on passengers. The PIA had been supplying the lists by hand. But the new requirement stipulated that these lists be transferred electronically. There are apprehensions that this may delay and make travelling to the US even more cumbersome and tedious.
There is a long process involved in checking the background of passengers. Airlines collect the information at the time of departure and send it to the Customs Service and the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service while the flight is en route to this country.
The Customs Service checks the names against several databases, including the Interagency Border Inspection System and the files of the National Crime Information Centre, maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Suspects can be arrested or pulled aside for further questioning after they land in the US.
Under the new aviation security law, foreign airlines no longer have a choice. For each passenger and crew member, they must provide the full name, date of birth, citizenship, sex, the number of the passport and the country where it was issued, the visa number or green card number and "such other information" as American officials deem necessary to ensure air safety. Zahid Afridi explained that in Pakistan's case the requirement was being met duly but there was some delay due to the non-availability of software.