WASHINGTON -- By early next year, passengers on flights bound for the United States will have their names checked against terrorist watch lists before departure, instead of after takeoff, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced yesterday.
The change is part of a slowly unfolding shift to put the Department of Homeland Security in charge of the watch-list screening for all commercial flights, foreign and domestic.
Last year alone, 87 million passengers flew into the United States from abroad. Airlines do not have to transmit final passenger manifests on foreign flights until after planes have taken off, which is one reason flights are sometimes diverted before reaching the United States but after Homeland Security officials have learned that a terrorism suspect is on board.
The new rules will require that final manifests be transmitted no less than 30 minutes before departure, or that the information, which is collected from passports, be sent one piece at a time as soon as passengers check in, until a plane's doors are closed.
"As the London plot demonstrated, we need to do everything in our power to identify potential threats before that airplane takes off," Chertoff said yesterday, referring to last year's attempt to carry liquid explosives aboard planes bound to the United States from Britain.
Separately, Chertoff announced that the department was close to formally taking over watch-list checks for all domestic flights.
That long-delayed step will probably not be complete until 2009 or 2010, but the government has started the transition by announcing proposed rules for the new program, which will be called Secure Flight.
Currently, airlines use government-supplied watch lists to determine whether to bar certain passengers or, more frequently, whether to subject them to further screening at a security checkpoint.
For domestic flights, the program will require airlines to transmit passenger data, based on advance reservations, starting 72 hours before departure. To reduce the likelihood of false matches, airlines are to ask passengers for their date of birth and sex, although providing such information will not be required.
Once the government takes over this task, checks are expected to be based on more up-to-date watch lists and more sophisticated software.
The changes should also significantly reduce the number of people wrongly interrogated because of erroneous matches and give the government more time to react to a potential plot, said Kip Hawley, the assistant secretary for the Transportation Security Administration, which will operate Secure Flight.
"It gives us a much better handle on identifying who the real people of concern are," Hawley said yesterday.