Looks like those wacky folks over at the Department of Homeland Security are at it again. In the name of improving your safety and security, Secure Flight is (supposedly) ready for implementation in early 2009. (Click for a little history on the program.) What does that mean? Well, they’re now planning on requiring birth dates and gender from all passengers touching US airspace. Oh, and the TSA will be doing the watch list matching instead of the airlines themselves. How is this going to make your life better? For most of you, it won’t, but it’ll sure cost you a lot as a taxpayer and traveler.
I think the best way to sum up the change is this. DHS isn’t planning on actually cleaning up the list, so instead they’ll just make people give more information so they stop mismatching so often. Now they can look at the guy who was born in 1988 and realize that it’s not the same as the “terrorist threat” who was born in 1978. Oh yeah, and all those ambiguously-named people like Pat and Terry can now rest easy that if someone of the opposite sex might be a terrorist, they won’t be falsely flagged.
In fact, they effectively say this in the sleep-inducing 195 page final ruling (PDF):
Most of the rule’s benefits occur post-implementation. Secure Flight standardizes the watch list matching process across domestic and foreign commercial airlines. Resulting benefits will include more accurate, timely, and comprehensive screening, and a reduction in false positives. This occurs because Secure Flight has access to more initial data with which to distinguish passengers from records in the watch lists than is currently available to airlines.
But will this slow down the process? Yes, but not much. It will take a little more time to collect this extra information, but it will be done at the time of purchase, not at the airport. So, if you go to buy a ticket at the airport right before your flight, I can imagine it being slower because you’ll need to be cross-referenced with watch lists, but other than that, it shouldn’t make much of a change at the airport itself.
Of course, this won’t be cheap. The estimates are that it will cost airlines $630 million over 10 years. The bulk of that is for reprogramming systems to be able to take this additional information, and the rest is in time lost due to the extra 20 to 25 seconds (that’s what the TSA says) that it will take for people to give their information when they make a reservation. But those are just airline costs. The Feds (read: US taxpayers) will be on the hook for about $1.5 billion in costs.
So, the ultimate result is that yes, there will be fewer people mismatched to the watch lists, but it’s going to cost us billions of dollars and it won’t impact most of us, especially if the watch lists are in fact only 18,000 people strong, as the government is now claiming. That seems like an awfully large sum of money to spend to avoid duplicates on such a small list. Anyone else believe that report that the list is that small? Me neither.
Let’s assume the list is actually much bigger. Is it worth it to spend billions of dollars to avoid mismatching? Not for me, because I’ve never been on the list. But for those who have, you’ll probably be pretty happy.