Wednesday, April 23, 2008

US to Insist That Travel Industry Get Fingerprints

US to Insist That Travel Industry Get Fingerprints

By Spencer S. Hsu and Del Quentin Wilber

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The U.S. government today will order commercial airlines and cruise lines to prepare to collect digital fingerprints of all foreigners before they depart the country under a security initiative that the industry has condemned as costly and burdensome.

The proposal does not say where airlines must collect fingerprints - at airport check-in counters, departure gates or kiosks somewhere in between. But the government estimates the undertaking will cost airlines $2.3 billion over 10 years, a U.S. homeland security official said.

The overall economic impact on companies, passengers and the government is expected to exceed $3.5 billion, industry lobbyists said, at a time when carriers are struggling with safety concerns, high fuel costs and passenger complaints.

Formal announcement of the plan to track the departure of foreign visitors, as part of the Homeland Security Department's US-VISIT program, comes after an extended battle between the security agency and airlines.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff linked the effort to enforcing the nation's immigration laws recently, saying airlines were obstructing the measure for commercial reasons.

"If we don't have US-VISIT air exit by this time next year, it will only be because the airline industry killed it," Chertoff said recently. "We have to decide who is going to win this fight. Is it going to be the airline industry, or is it going to be the people who believe we should know who leaves the country by air?"

Doug Lavin, regional vice president for the International Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. and international carriers, said the government, not airlines, should collect fingerprints. "This is ludicrous," Lavin said. "We can't afford anything in the billions to support a program that should be a government program."

Fingerprinting an estimated 33 million departing foreign passengers a year will result in "delayed departures, missed connections here and around the world," Lavin said.

Launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, US-VISIT is intended to automate the processing of visitors entering and exiting the country, using fingerprints and digital photographs to help find criminals, potential terrorists and people who overstay visas and join the nation's illegal immigrant population.

While the program has succeeded in recording nearly 100 million people entering the country since 2004, the DHS has struggled to implement the exit portion. Frustrated at the department's slow pace, Congress last year set a June 2009 deadline for DHS to collect fingerprints from departing air passengers in a law to implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

Otherwise, Congress said, the government cannot expand the Visa Waiver Program, under which residents of 27 friendly countries can visit the United States without a visa. Inclusion is a priority for nations including South Korea and Greece, and the tourism industry has also targeted South America for expansion.

The proposal will be open for a 60-day comment period. DHS could decide after that time where fingerprinting must be conducted, or it could leave the decision up to airlines, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the proposal has not been formally announced.

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