Airline industry balks at US-VISIT fingerprint plan

The airline industry is strongly opposed to the Homeland Security Department's latest plan to put airlines in charge of fingerprint checks for foreign passengers who are departing the United States, according to the president of a major airline trade association.

The plan is "as ill-conceived as it is surprising," stated James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association, in a May 8 letter addressed to White House Homeland Security Advisor Frances F. Townsend.

The plan recently was advanced by DHS as part of its U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. Currently, foreign visitors are fingerprinted upon entry to the United States, but there is no system in place to confirm if and when they leave the country. Congress has been demanding a so-called biometric exit strategy for US-VISIT for several years.

Under the DHS plan, airlines would verify the fingerprints of departing foreign visitors during the flight check-in process. Typically, that occurs when a passenger arrives at an airport and presents identification, a valid ticket and baggage.

However, airline executives say they were not consulted about the DHS proposal to include fingerprint verification and matching the visitors' fingerprints against a US-VISIT database at check in, and consider it inappropriate and misguided.

"Inexplicably, DHS intends to saddle airlines with that responsibility," May wrote in the letter. "That would wrongly delegate an inherently government, immigration and security-related function to the private sector."

The proposal also impedes airlines' efforts to make passenger check-in procedures as fast and streamlined as possible, and if implemented it is likely to cause additional lines and delays at airports, May wrote. Currently, about 30 percent of passengers perform check-ins online.

May said the appropriate location for fingerprint checks at airports is at the security check points managed by the Transportation Security Administration, a part of DHS. Adding biometric information collection and verification to the security checkpoints can be accomplished seamlessly because TSA is in full control of those checkpoints, May wrote.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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