U.S. and European officials last week reached a new agreement on sharing transatlantic air passenger data, a development that would remove the threat of suspended U.S. landing rights for European airlines. Industry groups that had feared a possible disruption to business travel after 31 July--when an interim deal expires--applauded the agreement, which still requires final approval from 27 European Union member states.
As U.S. officials were resolving that potential snag in the transatlantic aviation market, a Senate Commerce committee passed new legislation that would promote inbound travel by foreigners while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, congressional leaders and industry representatives were discussing the latest efforts to collect biometric information from both inbound and outbound international travelers.
On balance, it is unclear if such developments--and other travel security programs--would help or hinder U.S. efforts to welcome foreign visitors. "Overseas visitors spend more time and more money in our country than do domestic travelers, and our visa and entry policies are driving them away," according to a statement by Travel Business Roundtable chairman Jonathan Tisch.
Despite eliminating a legal conundrum for European airlines, the passenger data deal generated opposition from those who say it infringes on privacy. Under terms of the original deal reached in 2004--part of U.S. efforts to prevent terrorism--and the interim deal signed in Oct 2006, European airlines were required to transmit within 15 minutes of flight departure 34 pieces of data from passenger name records to U.S. authorities. For the new pact, U.S. and E.U. negotiators agreed to reduce the types of data collected to 19 but store it longer, for as many as 15 years.
"Three years of experience in using passenger data to protect international aviation while respecting the privacy of law-abiding travelers has built confidence in our security systems," according to a statement attributed to C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., the former Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security who negotiated the original passenger name record data-sharing treaty and now serves as the lead government affairs consultant to the National Business Travel Association.
The Business Travel Coalition described the new agreement as "a workable compromise." BTC chairman Kevin Mitchell commended the reduction in datapoints but said it is "offset" by the increased retention time "with what apparently will be unfettered access to the data with virtually no restrictions on purpose-of-use by several U.S. agencies for the first seven years." Mitchell said additional data safeguards could come as individual E.U. member states examine the agreement. "Very importantly, this agreement will likely be a catalyst for a E.U.-wide passenger data collection system that will profoundly increase security for Europe, and consequently, the U.S.," he concluded.
Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, said the agreement is "a victory for Europe." But the two sides must address the extended retention time for the data, the unlimited access to that data by U.S. agencies and "the absence of a venue allowing E.U. citizens to check their stored data," Gurley said, "or this will simply be one more agreement subject to contentious revision in a few years."
In a 27 June letter sent to German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble--a member of the European delegation involved in the negations--and posted to European civil liberties watchdog statewatch.org, European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx expressed "grave concerns" about those aspects of the new deal. "I have serious doubts whether the outcome of these negotiations will be fully compatible with European fundamental rights," he wrote. Citing ongoing privacy concerns, certain members of European Parliament also objected to the new agreement, according to various published reports.
In May, the Bush Administration revised a report issued by the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, including removal of language indicating that intelligence officials deemed anti-terrorism programs as "potentially problematic intrusions on civil liberties," according to The Washington Post. The newspaper also reported that the White House deleted a reference on how the U.S. Department of Homeland Security "assigns 'risk' ratings to people entering the United States under the Automated Targeting System." DHS in December drew firefrom business travel and civil liberties groups, as well as some European officials, when the passenger component of ATS was made public.
European Commissioner responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security Franco Frattini in a December speech said there were "significant differences" between how PNR data is handled within ATS and how DHS and the European Union agreed it should be handled. "I am sure that any new agreement will provide for a high level of data protection for all PNR data transferred under the agreement while protecting the security of our citizens," he had said. Frattini also was involved in hammering out the newest PNR data transfer agreement.
In addition to behind-the-scenes data checking that passengers do not see, more foreigners are being asked to provide biometric data such as fingerprints when entering the country, as part of the US-VISIT entry program now in place at 116 airports. A similar plan to collect biometric data from exiting foreigners also is in the works, though behind schedule, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
"DHS recently informed us that it had decided, regrettably without prior consultation, to require airlines [rather than law enforcement officials] to collect the biometric information for US-VISIT/Exit. This is very bad news for airline customers and it will get worse for them in the future," said Air Transport Association president James May, during testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee last week. "Airlines are increasingly offering their customers the opportunity to check in before they get to the airport, through online and other communications technology. Customers appreciate the ease of pre-airport check-in and, consequently, airlines are working to minimize airport-based transactions. DHS, in contrast, envisions a system of continued airline physical interaction with every customer at the airport."
Regarding such programs and other U.S. security efforts, 20 of 25 U.S. mayors told Tourism Economics that the "uncertainty and unpredictability" of U.S. air travel requirements has reduced the number of foreign visitors to their cities.
To overcome such perceptions, the Senate Commerce Committee last week passed the Travel Promotion Act of 2007 calling for the creation of a non-profit "Corporation for Travel Promotion," as well as an Office of Travel Promotion within the Department of Commerce. The non-profit group would have a 15-member board representing state and federal governments, higher education and the travel industry. It would be initially financed by borrowing $10 million from the U.S Treasury, and then through contributions and other non-federal funding. The federal government would then match that funding through a Travel Promotion Fund within in the Treasury, which would be finance by a $10 user fee imposed on inbound international travelers from the 27 countries participating in the U.S. visa waiver program.
The legislation also directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish a "model port of entry program" at the 20 busiest international gateway airports and hire additional Customs and Border Protection officers "to address staffing shortages" at those airports. The bill has been reported to the full Senate for consideration.