DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, with the support of TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, announced this week that the Secure Flight program is finally moving forward. They acknowledged that it has taken a very long time to get this passenger name checking system ready to fly but now feel confident that the time taken has not been wasted. Hawley was particularly proud of the fact that the regulatory red tape did not kill the program, and TSA was still given plenty of time to test (and stress test) the technology that will do the name checking. He gave lots of credit to the Screening Coordination Office headed by Kathy Kraninger.

In a nutshell, Secure Flight will shift the burden of pre-flight passenger name vetting from the commercial airlines directly to DHS. It was one of the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission and when fully implemented, it will make the passenger’s experience with TSA a more efficient process. The final rule appears to have properly addressed all of the legitimate privacy concerns, even if there will still be a few whiners who will try to make up hypothetical privacy concerns. It appears the TSA’s recommended seven-seven-ninety nine retention policy is reasonable and appropriate to address what is universally recognized as a serious on-going threat to the aviation system.

Of course, Secure Flight will be no “silver bullet” solution to airline security. But it is one of many layers that DHS will implement in an effort to make the aviation system as safe as humanly possible.

In the new scheme, TSA and CBP will work together to vet names on domestic as well as international flights (currently two separate programs which eventually will be combined for greater efficiency) and eliminate many of the complaints with the operation of the “no-fly” and the “selectee” lists. Passengers will have to provide their full name, date of birth and gender. TSA has also recognized that airline reservation systems are not easily altered and has set a more reasonable 270 day implementation schedule than it had originally proposed. Indeed, after reviewing the myriad of comments it received in response to the proposed rule it issued over a year ago, TSA dropped many of the other requirements that had raised the hackles of some key stakeholders. It appears that TSA has taken the time to “get it right” first.

That is not to suggest that all of the problems that passengers and air carriers will encounter have been addressed in the implementation of Secure Flight. Air carriers have been handed an unfunded mandate by DHS. International air carriers have a legitimate issue in noting that some reservation systems are different from departure control systems in many foreign countries. TSA may have to take another look at this issue. Additionally, it remains to be seen how TSA addresses the issue of weather-related overflights, i.e. where a Canadian flight to the UK gets routed over US territory due to weather issues. The Final Rule provides some flexibility, but carriers have reason to be concerned because one person’s discretion can quickly become another person’s inflexibility.

DHS and TSA should be commended for finally getting the Secure Flight rule out the door and for resisting congressional meddling to force an unreasonable implementation schedule. Now let’s hope that it works as intended.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More