Homeland Security Late With Plan to Check Passengers

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government is three months late in coming up with a plan ordered by Congress to avoid diverting international flights because of concerns about their passengers.

Twice in the past week, Boston-bound planes from Europe were diverted from their destinations when a passenger's name was found to be similar to a name on the ''no-fly list'' of people considered threats to aviation.

When Congress passed an intelligence reform bill in December it gave Homeland Security until Feb. 15 to come up with a plan to check passengers' names against the list before planes take off.

''It doesn't seem like a mission impossible to require that we check all passengers against the terrorist watch list before a flight heads to the United States,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

About 2,600 planes fly into the United States every day, according to Flight Explorer, a Virginia-based company that provides flight-tracking information.

''The 'No-Fly' list must not be a 'Fly-and-Then-Check-List,'' Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said after the second Boston flight was diverted Tuesday. ''It is unacceptable that checks against the list are performed after the plane has left the gate and may already be in the air.''

Under the current system, airlines check the passengers before they board, then forward a manifest to U.S. officials 15 minutes after a plane departs.

Passenger names and personal information - such as passport information, address, flight details and form of payment - are sent electronically to the Customs Service's National Targeting Center. There, law enforcement officials use computer programs to compare the data with lists of terrorists, wanted criminals and violators of immigration laws.

It can take up to two hours to check all the passengers, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. If the United States checked names before a flight took off, passengers would have to wait in their seats for two hours or show up at the airport two hours earlier, he said.

''So here's the choice: either you have to occasionally inconvenience 250 passengers or you otherwise inconvenience hundreds of thousands of passengers every day,'' Stempler said.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the department is drafting a plan to get the passenger information before planes take off, but he called that a tough challenge.

''It's an extraordinarily complex issue,'' Knocke said. ''We're not going to rush this. We're going to do this right.''

Homeland Security officials will discuss the issue in Brussels, Belgium, this week with their counterparts in the European Union, Knocke said.

In the latest incident, an Alitalia flight from Milan, Italy, to Boston was sent to Bangor, Maine, on Tuesday after U.S. authorities discovered that one passenger had the same name as someone on the no-fly list.

Homeland Security officials said the man, whose name was not made public, was not a suspected terrorist. After questioning, he voluntarily withdrew his application for status as a permanent legal resident and will be deported, Customs and Border Protection Assistant Commissioner Kristi Clemens said Wednesday.

Five days earlier, an Air France flight from Paris to Boston landed in Bangor because a passenger's name was similar to a name on the no-fly list. He was allowed to continue his trip after officials determined he was not the person on the list.

Diversions have occurred a few other times. The most notable was in September when the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens was removed from a London-to-Washington flight and sent back to London because of his alleged ties to terrorists. The singer has denied any such connection.

Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, said the government needs to improve the system.

''To be pulled over like that is unnerving, at least, and very annoying,'' said Mitchell, whose group represent corporate travel agents.