Airline screening program panned by House appropriators

House appropriators are hitting the Transportation Security Administration in the pocketbook for falling further behind on a program to screen airline passengers through government databases.

According to the fiscal 2006 Homeland Security spending bill the Appropriations Committee passed Tuesday, the program would receive $66 million -- $15 million less than President Bush requested and $31 million above last year's enacted level. The House is slated to take up the measure Tuesday.

The TSA recently told House appropriators that it would not have Secure Flight fully operational by October, but rather would roll out the system to all commercial airliners next year, according to a committee report on the Homeland Security Department's fiscal 2006 spending bill.

"TSA's current schedule of having all 66 airlines onboard by [October] appears overly optimistic," according to the committee report. In a recent briefing, TSA said the first two airlines will not begin testing the program until August and the next airlines are not scheduled to begin until late 2005. But appropriators said that scenario assumes that "all goes well with the first two airlines and no major problems are identified that would set back this program."

The lawmakers also ordered TSA to not spend any money on rolling out Secure Flight until it matches 10 criteria outlined by Congress last year, including oversight, security safeguards, accuracy of data, cost to airlines, privacy protections and a system of redress for passengers who are incorrectly targeted by the system. GAO reported in March that TSA has only met one out of the 10 criteria.

"Many outstanding items, including schedule, cost and work that the airlines must do to incorporate Secure Flight into their reservation system, are still unclear," the committee report said. "TSA hopes to have these issues resolved in the summer; however, past experience has shown TSA unable to meet aggressive schedules" for the program.

TSA may ask air carriers to collect birthdates from passengers and also is considering using commercial databases to validate a passenger's identity.

Lawmakers have criticized the department for falling behind schedule and others have raised privacy concerns with protecting personal data. GAO said the viability of Secure Flight hinges on TSA's ability to communicate with airline reservation systems, but GAO said there is not a process in place to connect those systems with TSA and law enforcement databases.

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