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Screening, Travel IDs Sought for Air Safety

Security: Airlines seek mandatory checks of passengers against government lists.


WASHINGTON — The airline industry on Thursday formally called for a massive screening system that would subject passengers to intensive background checks, providing a boost to one of the more controversial security ideas under discussion since Sept. 11.

Under the Air Transport Assn. proposal, all reservations would be checked against a new government database that would include arrest records, intelligence information, immigration files and financial data. This master database, constantly updated, would be used to identify individuals who merit closer screening at the airport.

The industry also proposed a "trusted traveler" identification card, which would be issued to prescreened passengers willing to undergo extensive personal background checks. These travelers would be sent to airport checkpoints with less intensive screening, allowing them fewer delays.

The ideas are not new, but their endorsement by a group that represents 26 passenger and cargo airlines puts them at the center of the debate over how the American aviation system can be made less vulnerable to terrorism.

Such proposals reflect a sentiment among some in government and transportation circles that airline travel should become less of a right, open to anyone who can afford a ticket, and more of a privilege, extended to those who can prove they are not a threat.

"Any new aviation security system must dramatically change its current orientation from looking primarily at things to looking at people," said Carol Hallett, president of the association. "Things are carry-on bags, checked bags and so forth. . . . We need to know the passenger."

The proposal offered no estimate of what it would cost and who would pay for it; it also did not present a time frame for implementation. A Transportation Department spokesman said more specifics are needed before the agency could comment.

Such proposals have been anathema to civil libertarians, who have succeeded in quashing them in the past. But the association's endorsement and public horror over the Sept. 11 attacks have reinvigorated their proponents, who hope that the political balance may be changing.

Civil libertarians contend that establishment of such a vast database would lead to an unneeded infringement of privacy. "We don't object to checking against lists of known terrorists . . . but are we going to be looking for deadbeat dads?" asked Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

As for the trusted traveler ID, Steinhardt said, "We are concerned this card will not be 'voluntary' in a true sense. The consequence of not having one of these cards is that you are going to be subject to intrusive, and probably embarrassing, searches." Civil liberties groups are also concerned that such a program, creating what would amount to an internal passport, would be the first step toward national identification cards.

A spokeswoman for the Assn. of Flight Attendants contended that the ID program could backfire. "From what we've learned from Sept. 11, these [attacks] were not [planned] overnight," said Dawn Deeks. "What would stop someone who might have an ill intent from getting into one of these programs, knowing that somewhere down the line they would have easier access?"

Without commenting on the specifics of the industry plan, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said the general idea is sound. "I have long maintained that the biggest failure of Sept. 11 was a failure of the intelligence community," said Mica. "It is now important that we just not focus on things, but on the people who would commit these terrorist acts."

The proposal came at a news conference in which Hallett also announced that 14 major airlines have finished reinforcing cockpit doors.

The fortifications, completed two months ahead of schedule, generally involve installing a heavy metal brace behind the cockpit door. The reinforcements are temporary, until the Federal Aviation Administration sets specifications for redesigned "hardened" cockpits. Virtually all passengers will now be flying in planes with reinforced cockpit doors.

"This is so crucial as we go into the holiday season," Hallett said. "Americans can have full confidence that these aspects with respect to strengthening the cockpit door have been fulfilled."

Aviation security bills pending on Capitol Hill require passenger reservations to be checked against law enforcement databases, but they leave it to the Bush administration to decide which lists to check. In addition, the House-passed version authorizes the Transportation Department to explore the feasibility of a trusted traveler plan.

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