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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aeroflot Passengers Face U.S. Searches

Travelers flying on Aeroflot to the United States, starting Thursday, may face rigorous searches by customs agents upon their arrival that could delay them for hours.

New aviation security legislation signed into law last week by U.S. President George W. Bush requires Aeroflot and 57 other airlines to provide detailed information about their passengers and crew members. The information is wanted to identify possible terrorists.

Aeroflot said it only learned about the requirement Tuesday and will not be ready to comply.

The U.S. Customs Service sent letters notifying the 58 airlines about the requirement Friday. The letter states that airlines must provide the full name of each passenger as well as his date of birth, citizenship, sex, passport number and country where it was issue, visa or green card number and, in some cases, his complete travel itinerary.

Airlines usually collect the information at the airport and then transmit it electronically to U.S. customs through the Advance Passenger Information System, or APIS, when the plane departs.

The letter, signed by customs commissioner Robert Bonner, warned that if airlines do not meet the rule, customs agents will thoroughly search "all hand-carried and checked baggage on every flight arriving in the United States."

"We recognize that the vast majority of travelers are not a threat to the United States," Bonner said in the letter. "However, we believe that in the wake of Sept. 11, international flights pose a serious national security risk to the United States if carriers do not provide comprehensive and accurate APIS data. This information will be used by the customs service to improve air security by, among other things, identifying potential terrorists seeking to enter the United States."

Both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens will be subject to the searches.

Aeroflot, which aside from Delta Air Lines is the only airline offering regular flights to the United States, said that it only learned about the deadline from news reports Tuesday and that it was scrambling to find a way to prevent passengers from being inconvenienced.

"We are now talking to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and the Foreign Ministry, trying to understand the situation and how to minimize difficulties [for passengers]," Lev Koshlyakov, Aeroflot's deputy general director for public relations, said by telephone.

"We were planning to introduce it early next year, but now it has become an emergency," Koshlyakov said. "We haven't considered this possibility from a technical point of view yet."

The United States is ready to offer financial assistance, he said.

"We are hoping to find a way out with the help of the American side," he added. "We hope to reach some compromise."

Koshlyakov could not say how long it will take for Aeroflot to meet the U.S. rule.

Delta passengers will not be affected. The airline has provided the necessary passenger information for years, U.S. customs spokesman Kevin Bell said.

Other airlines that face the Thursday deadline include Saudi Arabian Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Pakistan International Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Air China. The United States has been trying to get air carriers like Saudi Arabian Airlines to provide the detailed information for years, a quest that appears to have only intensified after U.S. authorities identified most of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks as Saudi.

APIS is an automated system capable of performing database queries on passengers prior to their arrival in the United States. The system was set up in 1988 by U.S. customs together with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the airline industry.

Up until Thursday, participation has been voluntary and 94 airlines have taken part, according to U.S. customs.

Prior to a plane's arrival, the APIS data is checked against a federal database called the Interagency Border Inspection System, which includes the combined databases of U.S. customs, the INS, the State Department and 21 other federal agencies. Names are also checked against the FBI's National Crime Information Center files of wanted persons.

Upon arrival in the United States, suspect passengers are taken aside for questioning or searches.

Last year, APIS processed 57 million of the 67 million passengers bound for the United States, customs said.

Under the new aviation law, airlines had two months to begin electronically transmitting their passenger lists, but last week customs commissioner Bonner pushed the deadline up to Thursday. Bonner was unavailable for comment.

Bell, the customs spokesman, could not say why Aeroflot might not have received the notification letter, but he said airlines had been given sufficient time to comply with the regulations.

"I do not think it's short notice, they should have participated before," Bell said by telephone from Washington.

He added, however, that to airlines that agree to comply may face only minor disruptions. "If an international air carrier asked U.S. customs for assistance or guidance to help them into compliance, there may be some minor disruptions to their service," he said.

"We will work with them and will make the transition from nonparticipation to participation as smooth as possible, he said. "It may take a week or so, but we will gladly help them."

Until Sept. 11, U.S. destinations accounted for 8 percent of Aeroflot's business. The airline has scaled down its flight schedule to the United States as passenger levels dropped over the past two months. Aeroflot now operates seven weekly flights to New York, three of which go on to Washington; three weekly flights to Los Angeles; and three weekly flights to Seattle, which continue to San Francisco.