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Wow. At a time when the aviation industry is reeling around an unhappy maypole of atmosphere-high fuel prices on a jelly-steady global economy ” airlines partnering with competitors just to survive - it has just been asked to begin taking biometric fingerprints of all non-US passengers leaving the country.
Oh, and it has to pay to do it. The Department of Homeland Security”s (DHS) US-VISIT Exit proposal ” published this week, kicking off a 60-day comment period which, one suspects, will be relatively lively ” suggests it will cost around $2-$3 per passenger, amounting to around $3.5bn (”1.7bn) in the first ten years.
Let”s get the inevitably hostile reaction to this element of it out of the way ” this the Air Transport Association of America”s rather cultured counter-attack: ”This is an industry in crisis, and adding the DHS $3.5bn proposal ” which we have every reason to believe, from experience, will actually be higher ” on top of the financial burdens airlines already bear is unconscionable.”
Sounds like a P.G. Wodehouse aunt slapping down suggestions of a higher allowance for a scoundrel, no-good nephew.
And Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) global executive director Susan Gurley adds a fair point: ”The protection afforded by this rulemaking is national in scope, and not confined to the travelling public. As a consequence, its cost should not be carried either by the airlines or by the travelling public. This is a cost that should be paid by a special appropriation from Congress.”
So how will the whole thing work? DHS wants the system in place by next year for starters, and it says airlines are best-placed to carry them out because they already send it passengers” biographic information.
”A biometric collection can be taken in conjunction with these already existing processes at the check-in counter without the alien [foreigners, to anyone outside the US] experiencing significant additional processing time,” says the report.
It continues: ”The remaining alternatives were less favourable to the alien”although [they] proceed through the security checkpoint and are processed by carriers at the departure gate, biometric collection at these locations would be an entirely separate process and could result in additional time.
”Likewise, DHS collection at the check-in counter or departure gate adds a DHS process where one currently does not exist.”
That”s its excuse for keeping government officials out of this, and while not entirely without reason it remains debatable.
So many questions are raised ” the airlines want to know why the government can”t carry them out at its Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security screening checkpoints? Or create their own kiosks? The whole industry has been trying to prise people away from check-in counters to save time and erase snaking queues.
”Airlines spent the last four years using technology to respond to travellers” desire for self-service,” raged International Air Transport Association (IATA) chief Giovanni Bisignani. ”Our Simplifying the Business programme is moving passenger check-in online or to kiosks. Sending passengers back into counter queues is a big step backward.
”TSA is already working on a security check-point of the future. Why is Customs and Border Protection not working with its sister agency to combine the exit process into an automated solution that is both convenient and effective?”
DHS” excuse is that these checkpoints are ” wait for it ” ”primarily concerned with the screening of individuals and luggage.” Isn”t check-in primarily concerned with checking people in? It also says taking biometrics here could cause delays, and many TSA locations ”have space limitations.”
All this brings us inexorably on to the question of how, exactly, this will affect passengers. If the process is done at check-in, carriers are worried this too will cause delays.
IATA head of corporate communications Steve Lott told ABTN: ”The Government says it will take a few seconds ” we disagree, we think it will take an additional minute per passenger. Firstly you”ve got to teach people what to do, and ten prints [are required] - if one doesn”t read correctly you have to do that again, so we think theirs is a gross underestimate.
”You”re talking several hundred passengers per flight, so potentially it adds hours of waiting time and could lead to much longer queues. It will also lead to confusion because only non-US citizens need to do this, and it could affect US passengers because unless they split the lines they will be waiting too.”
DHS suggests perhaps it should be at each airline”s discretion where they swab folks” fingers, but ACTE thinks this is too foggy: ”In leaving the design and implementation to various carriers, there is no guarantee that the process will be the same at every airport ” or even at different locations within the same airport,” said Gurley. ”An identical exit system, with identical signage, needs to be in place at every airport to minimise delays or confusion experienced by 100m travellers attempting to leave the country.”
A poignant moment to consider that with Open Skies up and running, an additional 30m passengers are expected to hop across the pond in the next five years.
Gurley also raises the unfortunate - but obvious - point that if carriers pay for all this, passengers do too.
”The price of this rulemaking would be passed directly onto the traveller,” she says. ”It is equally unreasonable to drop a $300m travel cost increase in the form of security surcharges or additional ticket taxes onto business travellers, when companies are already struggling to sustain current travel levels.”
Just another thing for those travel managers who are meant to be tightening the corporate belt to think about. And will business travellers be put off simply by the thought of more airport hang-ups? The US already has a reputation for not being the easiest place to travel to or transit through.
”Any extra confusion or hassle will certainly hurt companies trying to invite more international travellers or business,” said IATA”s Lott. ”For a lot of passengers, English is not their first language ” it scares us to think the confusion this could create if it”s implemented in the wrong way.
”The industry is in a fragile financial state, so anything that might scare passengers away is certainly concerning.”
Indeed. The TSA”s stated goal is to ”ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce” ” and yet, in this paranoid, post 9/11 era it has a responsibility to the nation to do its utmost to prevent future terror attacks.
It is the 9/11 Commission which called for biometric entry and exit records, to confirm that travellers are who they say they are ” DHS is simply closing the loop now. It”s a ”quantum leap” in border security according to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, but he must make sure it doesn”t clog airports and annoy airlines.
The country of immigrants relies on visitors as much as ever, and still needs to treat them well.
Harry GlassSenior reporter - ABTN