FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 29, 2005
At Start Of Busy Summer Travel Season: Schumer: Dangerous Hole In Air Security –Terrorists On Watch List Can Board U.S. Bound International Flights Unchecked
Flight Manifests of Passengers Who Board Planes Headed for U.S. from Abroad Not Checked until after Plane Takes Off, Congress Mandated Solution by February 14, 2005, still no Change from DHS
In the last several weeks, two flights entering the United States from abroad were diverted because they were found to be carrying passengers with names on the terrorist watch list. Today, U.S Senator Charles E. Schumer said that the practice of checking flight manifests against passenger lists only after the flight is already airborne should be stopped as soon as possible and called on DHS to enact a rule to ensure that manifests are checked before the plane leaves the ground. Schumer also released a survey this week of New York area airports that found over 125 flights a day with passengers originating from just 12 terror-hot spot countries landing at JFK and Newark Liberty International Airport.
“It doesn’t seem like a mission impossible to require that we check all passengers against the terrorist watch list before a flight heads to the United States,” Schumer said. “The incredible danger and tremendous inconvenience caused by not clearing names with the terrorist watch list before a flight takes off is unacceptable.”
Current law requires airlines to transmit their international flight manifests to DHS within 15 minutes of take off so that it can be checked against the terrorist watch list. Recognizing the potential for terrorist exploitation, Congress, in December 2004, passed into law (with the Intelligence Reform bill) a requirement that DHS offer within 60 days of passage new regulations mandating airlines transmit their international flight manifests before an international flight takes off. This would allow Customs and Border Protection enough time to check passenger information in order to stop a terrorist from even boarding the plane.
“The bottom line is, the time has come and gone,” Schumer said. “If there was ever a time that a stitch in time saves nine, this is it.”
According to the Bureau of Transportation statistics 80,104 direct international flights came in to New York’s two major international airports – JFK and Newark Liberty – from January through November of 2004. JFK had 46,830 international flights land and Newark Liberty 33,174 both from over 50 different foreign countries.
“Flying airplanes to American airports is a privilege, not a right. If these flight security standards don’t measure up to those we have in place here, we need to end those flights immediately," said Schumer. "Terrorists are smart, and they don't hit us where we are strong, but where we are weak. We've done a lot of work bringing U.S. airports up to snuff but if terrorists know they can just easily board a US-bound plane halfway across the world carrying a bomb – and they can – then that's what just what they are going to do."
Because federal statistics track country and not airport of origin, the total number of airports serving JFK and Newark Liberty is significantly higher, because at least a bare majority of foreign countries have more than one airport serving the United States, either directly or through several connections. There are countless connections travelers can make to get to the United States from even the most remote locations. Every one of these flights, if not thoroughly checked, offers a prime opportunity to strike the United States.
But a study by Schumer's office this week found that on just one day – Tuesday May 31, 2005 – just after the holiday weekend, there are 125 flights from known terrorist hotspots arriving at JFK or Newark Liberty Airports including:
• 18 from Istanbul, Turkey
To try and counter this threat, Schumer today asked Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff to ensure that a new rule is devised, submitted, and implemented to close this loophole, and guarantee that flight diversions don’t become an all too common occurrence.
In his letter to Chertoff, Schumer wrote “I am very concerned both that international manifests are checked only after a flight takes off and that DHS has exceeded this deadline. This is not only because of the immediate security concerns, but also as a sign of DHS’s inability to quickly respond to nationally agreed upon gaps in our security.”
Click here to view letter.