All passengers flying through US airspace would have to be screened for terrorist ties, even when their aircraft is not landing in the country, under new proposals being considered by the US Transportation Security Administration.
The plan reflects concern that terrorists could hijack aircraft flying over the US to stage a repeat of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Airlines currently have to provide authorities with the names of passengers only for flights landing in the country. Washington wants to extend that rule to all aircraft passing over US soil.
The newly proposed TSA policy was prompted by an incident this month involving a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Mexico City. The aircraft was denied permission to enter American airspace after Mexican authorities alerted the US about two suspicious passengers on board. The flight returned to the Netherlands.
Two Saudi Arabian men on the flight were members of the US “no-fly” list of known or suspected terrorists. Both men had trained at the same Arizona flight school as one of the September 11 hijackers.
A spokesman for the homeland security department, which oversees the TSA, confirmed that the TSA was considering the proposal, but said the agency was consulting with foreign governments and airlines before implementing it.
He said airlines flying through US airspace were already obliged to check crew members against the “no-fly” list, so any change would not significantly disrupt operations to extend the screening to passengers. Any airline that flew to US destinations already had the infrastructure needed to make the checks.
But the proposal is likely to concern airlines in Europe, Canada, Mexico and elsewhere about the growing amounts of information required by authorities in the US. Some critics have claimed that requiring airlines to hand over passenger names violates privacy rules.
Officials with KLM and British Airways both said their airlines were already providing the information to US authorities even before the proposals were adopted.
“It only affects one of our flights from London to Mexico City so it does not have a big impact on us,” said a BA official.
KLM said it had started providing passenger manifests of its flights to Mexico City following this month's incident. “We want to avoid a repeat,” it said.
It is not yet clear whether airlines would be allowed to check names against the US “no-fly” list or whether they would be required to submit the list to US authorities. Canadian and Mexican airlines would be most affected. Some domestic Canadian flights, such as those between Toronto and Montreal, pass over US airspace.
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