The U.S. Customs Service today began extra scrutiny of passengers and crew coming into the United States on international flights whose airlines had not provided Customs with advance passenger manifests.
Customs checks the passengers lists against a number of federal terrorists and criminal watch lists.
The first affected flight was Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 35 from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Customs opened and checked every piece of carry-on and checked luggage. Passengers and crew waited in a long, slow-moving line to clear customs.
In Los Angeles, some passengers onboard a China Eastern flight subject to similar checks said it took them two hours to get through customs.
That compares with about five minutes for those coming into the U.S. on airlines that do provide advance passenger manifests.
Under the new Aviation Security Act, airlines operating international flights must turn over these manifests starting in mid-January. But last week U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner said he wanted the manifests starting today. He sent letters to the 58 U.S. and foreign carriers that do not provide the lists, warning them their passengers would face extra security checks before being allowed into the United States.
"I've decided that given the threat to the United States of terrorists entering our country, we need that information now," Bonner said.
He added that airlines don't have a right to fly into the United States, and that "if they want to exercise the privilege and right to fly individuals onboard a commercial aircraft into the U.S., then they have to comply with U.S. law. That's all we're asking."
Customs first began using this Advance Passenger Information System in 1988. Since then, more than 90 airlines have voluntarily agreed to submit the passenger lists electronically to Customs. That allowed the department to pre-screen 57 million of the 67 million passengers who flew into the United States last year.
Non-Participating Airlines' Passengers Subject to Checks
But 58 U.S. and foreign carriers had not participated in the program. They are the ones whose passengers are now subject to these extra checks. This is putting pressure on the airlines. As of today, 16 of them said they will begin submitting the passenger names as soon as possible.
One airline, Comair, began doing so today. The other 15 airlines who have agreed to do so are Aeroflot, Air China, Air Tahiti Nui, Allegro Airlines, American Trans Air, Chalks International Airline, Champion Air, Icelandair, Malev Hungarian, Miami Air International, Midwest Express, Pakistan International Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian, and Saudi Arabian Airlines.
A spokesman for a trade association representing international airlines said the carriers are scrambling to comply with the commissioner's request for information now. Wanda Warner of the International Air Transport Association said, "I don't know of any airline that has the technological capabilities to do this and has arbitrarily chosen not to do this."
Airlines will have no choice by mid-January, when it becomes mandatory to provide Customs with advance passenger lists. If they do not do so at that time, they could find their landing rights taken away.