Big business joins fight against new airport screening

Clamor of privacy concerns grows, with a new plan for more stringent checks into passenger backgrounds.

Fasten your seat belts and make sure your tray tables are in the upright and locked position: There could be turbulence ahead over the simple booking of a flight.

Corporate America has joined privacy advocates in raising alarm over the Transportation Security Agency's (TSA) plans to put a massive airline-passenger screening system in place by this summer. The chief concern: too many unanswered questions.

Corporate executives like Black & Decker's Peter Buchheit - who's responsible for the travel plans of more than 4,000 employees worldwide - want to know how this system will work and who will foot the bill. Mr. Buchheit is also concerned about who will have access to the information.

The Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System II or CAPPS II, will feed four pieces of passenger information into public and private databases. It will then assign a color-coded flag to each passenger: green for go, yellow for more scrutiny and red - you don't get near the plane.

The TSA says there will be an appeals process for passengers who are tagged inappropriately, but it's unclear how that will work - which worries businesses.

"We have quite a few people who work here who were born in other countries," says Buchheit. "What happens if they need to make a trip and they get flagged? Will it take a couple of days or weeks or months before they can travel?"

More than 100 members of the Business Travel Coalition sent a letter to Congress this month urging more hearings. "The awesome new power of linked and mined public- and private-sector databases" demands more scrutiny, they wrote.

Granted, many passengers worry about safety and welcome stringent inspections. The question, say experts, is how to balance safety with practicality - and privacy.

"We like CAPPS II because it promises to improve the travel experience by getting passengers through the government screening process faster," says Doug Wells of the Air Transport Association (ATA), the major airlines' lobbying arm. "But our airline members do have concerns about how passenger privacy will be protected, who runs and manages the program, and who gets access to the information."

For longtime critics of CAPPS, like Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union, the addition of the business community to the roster of concerned flyers is "pivotal." "It's crucial that business travelers who make up the backbone of the traveling public, the travel agencies, and the airlines themselves begin to wake up and realize this enormous surveillance system is going to be built and we - the traveling public - will be asked to foot the bill," says Mr. Steinhardt. "The TSA has not demonstrated that it can actually make it work or make us any safer."

The TSA disputes both charges, contending that the system will be an improvement over current screening, which simply tags things like unusual travel patterns and cash payments. CAPPS II, it insists, improves a many-layered approach designed to ensure checks and balances.

The TSA hopes to have CAPPS II up and running this year. But a number of stumbling blocks stand in the way. The first is political. Last fall, Congress required that CAPPS withstand scrutiny from the General Accounting Office; if it was found ineffective or intrusive, funding would be cut off. When President Bush signed the bill, he challenged Congress' right to impose that requirement. The GAO report is due out Feb. 14, and depending on its findings, it could spark a political showdown between the White House and Congress.

Then there's the issue of international support. For the system to work, other countries must sign on. So far, the European Union is balking, because it does not believe privacy will be properly protected.

Airlines themselves have also objected. While they say they support the idea, they've refused to turn over data until they're confident that it will be protected. The TSA has said that it may simply require airlines to turn over the data, but negotiations are still under way.

The business community's concerns reflect those of the airlines. Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition says the more he learns about CAPPS, the more concerned he becomes. "There could be a good strong rationale for CAPPS II, but it's such an enormous undertaking, it needs a better public policy debate," says Mr. Mitchell. "The TSA has not been forthcoming on many of these policy questions. There's an attitude that it's easier to seek forgiveness than seek permission, and with a system like this, that's not good enough."

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