Airline passengers soon will have their names checked against the U.S. “no-fly” list before flights take off for the United States, the homeland security chief said Wednesday.
The requirement, resisted by the airline industry for fear of costly delays, could be in place by early next year. It would make permanent a security measure temporarily put in place for flights from Britain after last week’s foiled plot to bomb trans-Atlantic flights.
Currently, airlines have to submit their passenger lists for international flights 15 minutes after takeoff.
“This is part of our border authority,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The reason we haven’t moved this is because the airlines were concerned about what they would do about passengers who would come up at the last minute, and they don’t want to hold the flights up,” Chertoff said.
“Our position has been: Isn’t it better to know before the plane takes off than to turn the plane around? Which I think is correct. So we’re on a course to getting this piece nailed down.”
Airlines fear that requiring the checks before takeoff would delay flights because of problems with information technology, staffing and privacy concerns among European Union countries, industry spokesman James May said.
That prediction was borne out after the department demanded to check passenger lists before U.S.-bound flights left British airports because of last week’s threat alert.
“There were very large numbers of very lengthy delays,” said May, president of the Air Transport Association. “We’re now well under a 30-minute average.”
Chertoff said the change was being discussed even before British authorities said they had cracked a monthslong plot to bomb as many as 10 flights headed for the United States from London.
Congress required the department to begin work in early 2005 on a plan to check U.S.-bound passengers against the “no-fly” list before their flights left international airports, said Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, a top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Chertoff’s comments came a few hours after fighter jets escorted a London-to-Washington flight to Boston after the pilot declared an emergency. Federal officials concluded the flight did not pose a terrorism threat after the disturbance was attributed to an apparently claustrophobic passenger who got into a confrontation with the flight crew.
Three days before the Britain plot was disclosed, a London-to-Boston flight was called back to Heathrow Airport after U.S. authorities discovered a passenger’s name was on their “no-fly” list. Four passengers were questioned by border control officers.
The Bush administration also is considering permanently banning passengers from bringing liquids on flights and requiring all passengers to remove their shoes when passing through security checkpoints, Chertoff said.
Dozens of people have been held or questioned in Britain and Pakistan in connection with the plot, but there remains no indication that any of the plans involved people in the United States, Chertoff said.
He said he is concerned that attacks could be launched “because they believe we’re currently distracted.”
“My emphatic message to everybody has been: ‘This is not the time to let your guard down,'” Chertoff said. “This is the time to increase your guard for everything, because we don’t want someone who wants to seize the moment to be able to do something.”
Associated Press Writer Leslie Miller contributed to this report.
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