The federal takeover of the checking of passenger names against terrorist watch lists, a top priority for aviation officials since the 2001 terrorist attacks, is not expected to be complete until 2010, more than five years behind schedule, a top Department of Homeland Security official has acknowledged.
The delay in the timetable is the latest setback in a long-promised program intended to enhance aviation safety, while reducing the number of passengers mistakenly identified as possible terrorists.
Since the 1990s, airlines have been required to do the checks on their own. But they do not always use the most up-to-date watch lists, or computer software that is sophisticated enough to distinguish between similar names, like Catherine Stevens and Cat Stevens, the former name of the British Muslim folk singer who was added to a no-fly list.
The Transportation Security Administration, the Homeland Security agency leading the federal effort, has invested nearly $140 million and four years trying to get the new system started. But two earlier versions of the system, which is now called Secure Flight, have failed, mostly because of civil libertarians' complaints that the vast new database would violate passengers' privacy.
The agency's administrator, Kip Hawley, said in an interview Tuesday that after spending a year re-examining Secure Flight, officials had come up with a way to reduce mistakes, protect privacy rights and achieve the reliability needed to screen about two million passengers that fly each day.
But it will cost about $80 million more in the next year and a half to develop the enhanced system, which will then require more than a year of testing, resulting in the estimate that it will be in full use sometime in 2010. Officials would not make public an estimate of how much they expect to spend before the system is complete.
''All of us are anxious to get it started as soon possible,'' Hawley said. ''But we are going to get it right before we set an artificial date and try to rush.''
The government effort first drew scrutiny when officials disclosed that they intended to search for unknown terrorists by buying access to commercial repositories of personal data collected about consumers to look for any possible link between a passenger and a known terrorist, like a common address or phone number.
The new system, which will not use commercial data, will simply check, ideally with greater accuracy, whether a passenger is on the no-fly list or a ''selectee list,'' which requires more intensive screening.
To reduce false alarms, under the new program, airline passengers will probably be required to provide a date of birth, Hawley said.
Hawley said he hoped that the start of the new system could be accelerated, assuming opposition is not too intense.
Officials are looking for ways to reduce false alarms. That has included a detailed review of the existing no-fly list to eliminate redundant or incorrect listings, which Hawley said should result in its being cut almost in half. He would not say how many names remained.
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