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United States Begins Crackdown On Uncooperative Foreign Flights

By Jonathan Peterson

Citing national security concerns, the U.S. Customs Service on Thursday began tough new scrutiny of baggage and travelers on dozens of foreign airlines that have failed to provide U.S. authorities with advance details about their passengers.

The move follows U.S. demands that 58 airlines from the Middle East, Russia, China and elsewhere provide the name, birth date, gender, travel plans and other information on their passengers before landing in this country. Most of the airlines have yet to comply, customs officials said Thursday.

Among the first to get the tougher treatment were passengers on an Air China flight to Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday morning, a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and others headed for Miami and Washington.

Such flights “pose a national security risk to the United States” if the airlines do not forward the passenger information, U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert C. Bonner warned in a statement. Customs, he added, plans “100 percent examinations of all people and luggage disembarking these particular flights.”

The issue heated up this month when Congress passed aviation security legislation that requires airplanes arriving from outside the United States to relay passenger data electronically, thus enabling customs inspectors to look for potential risks before flights reach the United States. The Advance Passenger Information System began in 1988, but participation had been voluntary and some overseas carriers have ignored U.S. requests to join in the effort.

Under the program, airlines submit passenger data when a plane takes off for the United States. Inspectors are able to check the names of travelers against an array of law enforcement databases and target particular passengers for closer examination when they reach a U.S. port of entry.