Proposal to speed up passenger list submissions draws criticism

Timing change sought by Customs, Border agency could prove costly, representatives of the airline industry say.

The travel industry and offshore drilling companies have raised objections to a rule change proposed by the Customs and Border Protection bureau that would require earlier submission of passenger manifests for comparison against terrorist watch lists.

CBP proposed on July 14 that passenger aircraft and ships submit manifests of who has gotten on board one hour before departure; the agency currently requires these lists be submitted just 15 minutes before departure. In its proposal, CBP said the change is a necessary national security enhancement.

The bureau also is aiming to change the definition of an aircraft's departure time, from the time the plane becomes airborne to the time it pulls back from the terminal. In a Sept. 13 letter to CBP, Nina Mitchell, border security manager for Virgin Atlantic Airways, protested the recommended change from the current "wheels-up" terminology.

Forcing planes to stand at boarding gates while government officials compare passenger manifests to watch lists would "require significant additional cost to the airlines and further development work to implement the new processes around this rule," the letter said.

In its rule proposal, CBP provided a wide range of potential costs. Large airlines, like Virgin, would pay between $573 million and $1.87 billion over 10 years in start-up and recurring costs, the proposal stated. Small airlines would need to spend up to $39 million over the next decade to meet the requirement, if it is enacted.

The Air Carrier Association of America, whose membership consists of small international airports and several smaller airline companies, said in a July 20 letter that the comment period for the rule - initially set to expire in August - was too brief. ACAA also complained that the proposed change "may have a substantial and disproportionate effect on smaller air carriers." Others also objected that the comment period ended only a month after the proposal was published.

The offshore drilling industry joined airlines in announcing opposition, with a trade association representing more than 100 companies with operations in the Gulf of Mexico citing safety concerns with the timeline.

In a Sept. 18 letter to CBP, the Offshore Operators Committee said the mandate that departing ships must provide the government with manifests an hour in advance would adversely affect hurricane evacuation plans at drilling outposts in the Gulf. It also could hinder a drilling station's recovery once the area was safe again, the group said.

CBP did not respond to requests for comment on these criticisms of its proposal.