U.S. tries exit tracking system at two airports

Atlanta and Detroit tests will last for 35 days.

The Homeland Security Department launched test programs at two airports Thursday in an attempt to verify when foreigners and legal permanent residents leave the country, but federal officials remain at odds with the airline industry over the effort.

The objective is to develop a system in which fingerprints are collected at every airport from non-U.S. citizens departing the United States. The fingerprints would be used to verify that visitors have not overstayed the time they are allowed to remain in the country.

Congress has been demanding the implementation of such a visa-enforcement process since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The test programs began Thursday at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and will last for 35 days. The testing will compare the process of collecting fingerprints at checkpoints operated by the Transportation Security Administration to having Customs and Border Protection collect fingerprints at gates.

But what is missing is a test to determine the feasibility of having the airlines, as opposed to the government, collect the fingerprints. Congress asked for such a test in its report accompanying the fiscal 2009 Homeland Security appropriations bill.

Officials from the airline industry and the department dispute each other's account of why the airline test is not being done.

"We can say with complete confidence that since Congress called for the trials late last year, DHS has never contacted us to cooperate on an airline test," said Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association. "It's not that we are resisting help. Frankly, they haven't asked us yet. Why not? I don't know."

But Robert Mocny, director of the program, known as US-VISIT, said the airlines refused to participate in the test program.

"We've been reaching out to them for months and they have completely refused," Mocny said. "They have a very concerted effort to not participate."

Victoria Day, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, said her group has had conversations with the department, "but nothing has emerged from them."

But Mocny said he ultimately expects a compromise to be reached under which the airlines participate in the final version of an exit verification system.

Aides for congressional appropriators acknowledged Thursday the airline test program is missing from current department plans. But they said the most important thing is getting the results of the test programs now getting under way.

"The bottom line ... is that the [pilot programs] are going forward where we're seeing how an exit system could be implemented at the gate and at the checkpoint," one aide said.

Aides also said they expect the government and airlines to reach a compromise.

The department did not seek any funding in its fiscal 2010 budget request to move forward with an air exit system. But one aide said the test results will be known by the time the House and Senate begin to reconcile their fiscal 2010 Homeland Security spending bills, and adding money for an air exit system will likely be part of conference negotiations.