Data discord threatens transatlantic flights

A failure by the U.S. and European Union to reach a new agreement next month on the provision of passenger data for transatlantic flights could ground up to 105,000 people each week, the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) director general said Thursday.

The two sides need to reach a new accord by the end of September, after the European Court of Justice ruled in May that the current agreement is unacceptable. That agreement calls for airlines to provide U.S. authorities with the names, addresses, ticket payment details and telephone numbers of passengers on U.S.-bound flights. The EU’s highest court ruled that there was no “appropriate legal basis” for the deal, and said it would cease to be valid from October.

If a new agreement isn’t reached before then, airlines will be forced to decide whether to continue providing the information in violation of European privacy law, withhold the information in violation of U.S. law, or ground flights to avoid breaking any law, said Giovanni Bisignani, director general and CEO of IATA, at a news conference in Tokyo.

“I hope that there will be an agreement because I know that the cooperation between the Homeland Security and European Union is strong and effective,” he said.

“I think there is time to find a decision,” Bisignani said. “It’s not up to me to say which is the best decision. It’s up to me to say I look forward to increased cooperation and increased discussion between the two parties because we cannot be in a situation on Sept. 30 when we have to make the decision which law to break.”

Bisignani’s comments came two days after U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff wrote in The Washington Post that the U.S. needs continued access to the personal information on passengers, and also wants the rules relaxed on how the information can be used.

The US Customs and Border Protection receives the information regularly, he wrote, but cannot share it freely with investigators in other Department of Homeland Security divisions, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or with the Federal Bureau of Investigations — “never mind with our allies in London.”

“This information might yet identify associates of those arrested in the plot in Britain, but the rules blind us in routinely searching for that connection,” Chertoff wrote.

The U.S. says the data allows them to identify certain passengers for additional screening when they arrive in the U.S. while reducing the amount of time spent on screening low-risk passengers.

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