WASHINGTON — All 197 airlines that fly to the U.S. are now collecting names, genders and birth dates of passengers so the government can check them against terror watch lists before they fly, the Obama administration announced Tuesday.
Getting all air carriers that travel to or through the U.S. to provide this information marks a milestone in the government's counterterrorism efforts and completes one of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations. The program, called Secure Flight, has been delayed for years because of privacy concerns and went through three versions before it was approved. It's designed to give U.S. authorities more time to identify and remove suspected terrorists from flights and reduce instances when passengers are mistaken for people on terror watch lists.
Misidentification of passengers has been one of the biggest inconveniences in post-Sept. 11 air travel, and widely known for putting thousands of innocent travelers and well-known figures like former Sen. Ted Kennedy, through extensive searching and questioning before they were allowed to fly.
Previously, airlines have been responsible for checking the passenger lists against terror watch lists. But the airlines did not have any information other than a name. Now the screening is done by the Transportation Security Administration. The more information available about a passenger, the less likely a passenger will be mistaken for someone on a watch list. When someone makes a flight reservation, that information goes to the Secure Flight database within seconds, TSA Administrator John Pistole said.
Compliance with the program has been phased in over the past year, and many travelers have already been supplying their gender, birth date and full name as it appears on their government identification when they purchase their tickets. Pistole said it's too early to tell if there have been fewer instances of mistaken identities now that the new system is in place. "It's just still too early to say," he said. "If six months from now we haven't seen a reduction, then that will concern me."