Customs gets tough on flight data filing demand

Airlines that fail to meet new requirements for electronically filing information with the Customs Service about passengers and crews aboard planes entering the United States will find themselves grounded.

June 1 was the deadline for airlines to begin submitting the data to the Customs Service's Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS).

The government can fine carriers filing incomplete or inaccurate data $5,000 for a first offense and up to $75,000 more for subsequent problems. Beginning today, Customs will ask airport authorities to revoke landing rights of airlines that continue to violate the reporting requirements.

Customs uses the information to screen for suspected terrorists or wanted criminals attempting to enter the country.

While it is considering severe penalties for airlines that fail to provide information, the agency has relaxed the accuracy standard.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed into law by President Bush last November, requires airlines to submit data to APIS that is at least 97 percent accurate. But the service is accepting 90 percent as the standard, said Dennis Benjamin, team leader of the air and sea team in Customs' Passenger Programs Division.

Personal data

The law requires airlines to provide the names, dates of birth, citizenship and gender of crew members and passengers before flights arrive. The airlines also must supply Customs with passport and visa information and itineraries.

For any flight arriving in the country, an airline is required to send information about the crew before the flight departs and passenger data 15 minutes after departure, Benjamin said.

Air carriers register the information at airport check-in counters using either optical character recognition readers or by manually keying in the data.

Customs has provided air carriers with about 16,000 RTE 6701 OCR readers from Rochford Thompson Equipment Ltd. of Berkshire, England. Some carriers have purchased readers, Benjamin said.

Airlines upload the information via electronic data interchange to an IBM 9672-X67 mainframe running the 64-bit z/OS at Customs' Newington Data Center in Springfield, Va. Customs lets small airlines file the data via e-mail in a format that Customs can move to the database easily.

Customs checks the APIS data against the Interagency Border Inspection System and the National Crime Information Center's wanted-persons files maintained by the FBI.

IBIS, which also resides at the Newington center, includes the data gathered by Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the State Department and 21 other agencies. IBIS also gives Customs workers access to NCIC.

After checking an airline's filing, APIS sends the information to Customs personnel at the appropriate arrival airport. If a passenger or crew member is wanted on criminal charges or is a suspected terrorist, Customs alerts law enforcement authorities.

Revamp planned

APIS is not a new program. Customs first rolled out the system in 1988 and asked airlines to voluntarily submit data. In 2000, information about 57 million of the 67 million passengers who entered the United States from foreign countries went into the system. The agency is planning a $36 million overhaul, Benjamin said.

Later this year, Customs will require carriers to send additional information, such as the address where passengers will reside during their stay in the country.

Currently, airlines transmit their data in batches, he said. But Customs wants airlines to send a passenger's information to APIS when he or she checks in for a flight.

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