I don't know why the US wasn't doing this a long time ago...looks like they are finally gonna play hardball on this issue. (Read far enough, by the way, and you'll see a great bit of deflection by America's great pals, the Saudis...)
U. S. Pressures Foreign Airlines Over Manifests
By ROBERT PEAR
ASHINGTON, Nov. 26 — The United States has told Saudi, Russian, Chinese and other foreign airlines that their passengers arriving in this country will be put through extremely rigorous, lengthy searches, starting Thursday, if the airlines did not provide information needed to identify potential terrorists.
The new aviation security law, signed by President Bush on Nov. 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 United States. 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 United States." The searches could add hours to the clearance process for overseas travelers.
Mr. Bonner sent the ultimatum to 58 carriers, including Saudi Arabian Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Pakistan International Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, Aeroflot and Air China, Beijing's main international carrier. China Eastern, based in Shanghai, and China Southern, based in Guangdong Province, also received the letters. Mr. Bonner said any delay could put security at risk.
The Customs Service said it had received hardly any responses. A spokesman for the Jordanian airline said it would comply. Other carriers said they did not know much about the new requirement or were still studying it.
American officials have said 15 of the 19 hijackers whose planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September were from Saudi Arabia. For years, the United States has been trying to get the Saudi airline to provide passenger manifests in advance of flights.
Indeed, for more than a decade, federal officials have been encouraging airlines to participate in the automated system used to compare biographical data on international air travelers with lists of suspected terrorists and criminals.
The lists are compiled by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The computer system, operated by the Customs Service, is known as the Advance Passenger Information System. Customs officers used the system to check the names of 57 million travelers who entered the United States on 387,000 flights last year. Those passengers accounted for 85 percent of the 67 million air travelers arriving in this country.
More than 90 carriers have been voluntarily supplying data on passengers. Airlines collect the information at the time of departure and send it to the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization 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 Center, maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Suspects can be arrested or pulled aside for further questioning after they land in the United States.
Under the new aviation security law, 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.
"This information will be used by the Customs Service to improve air security by, among other things, identifying potential terrorists seeking to enter the United States," Mr. Bonner said in his letter.
"We recognize that the vast majority of travelers are not a threat to the United States," Mr. Bonner said. "However, we believe that in the wake of Sept. 11, international flights pose a serious national security risk to the United States if carriers do not provide comprehensive and accurate data."
Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, said he found it appalling that some airlines had refused to provide the data until they were required to do so. Some of the airlines have said they do not have the necessary computer software.
Wanda Warner, a spokeswoman for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for the airline industry, said, "I don't know of any airline that could do this and chooses not to do so." She said some airlines might be unable to meet the Customs Service deadline because "they don't have the equipment to do it."
Saudi Arabian Airlines and the Saudi Embassy declined to comment on the new requirement. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy said last month that his country was not in any hurry to sign up for the passenger information system.
"At this time," the spokesman said, "hundreds of Saudi citizens are being detained and questioned with regard to the hijackings. A lot of them are innocent people. That number would probably quadruple if we shared advance information on air passengers with the United States."
William O. Connors, marketing manager for Royal Jordanian Airlines, said his company had promised today to provide the United States with data on passengers arriving in this country.
Mr. Connors said Jordanian airline executives had signaled their intention in a memorandum faxed to the federal government.
"Airlines don't look very good" if they are repeatedly accused of failing to cooperate, Mr. Connors said, adding: "The U.S. government came to us and said, `Will you join the Advance Passenger Information System?' It left us with no recourse."
Shahid Khan, marketing manager in the New York office of Pakistan International Airlines, said he was aware of the new requirement, but did not know if his company was providing the required information.
Egypt Air, Kuwait Airways, Olympic Airways and LTU, a German charter airline, agreed to participate in the passenger information system on Oct. 31.