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26 Feb, 2007

U.S. Homeland Security Offers Travellers “Redress” Complaint Option

After years of complaints by the travel industry and civil rights groups, the US Department of Homeland Security moved last week to address the complaints of travellers who feel they have been unfairly singled out for security checks “based on race, disability, religion, gender, ethnicity or national origin.”

In an announcement posted on its website on February 21, 2007, the DHS said it was launching the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) to help travellers “seek redress and resolve possible watch list misidentification issues with any of the department’s component agencies” by logging on to https://dhs.gov/trip .

This applies to “Individuals who feel they have been mistakenly denied boarding, unfairly or incorrectly delayed without reason at border points of entry, or identified for additional screenings.”

Individuals can also complain if they feel they have been “unfairly detained during your travel experience or unfairly denied entry into the United States”, or if a “ticket agent ‘called someone’ before handing you a boarding pass,” or “you believe the U.S. Government’s record of your personal information is inaccurate or has been misused.”

The DHS also said it has “completed a name-by-name review of the No-Fly list to ensure that only individuals currently posing a threat are included.” This will theoretically eliminate the hassles faced by many people who may share the same names as suspected terrorists.

However, the devil is in the detail. Although the announcement says that the website is “easy to use and easy to access”, those seeking redress will need to submit supporting documents and, perhaps most important, better understand the fine print of who will have access to the information.

The DHS says that it “safeguards the privacy of any personal information that you provide in your inquiry to DHS TRIP. This information will be protected and will only be shared in accordance with the provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974 (5 U.S.C. § 552a) and as provided in the Privacy Impact Assessment published for DHS TRIP.”

However, it adds, “To process your request, DHS TRIP will share this information within the Department and outside the Department with components or entities that can help address the underlying issues regarding your redress request. DHS TRIP may share information about you with airlines or other third parties where necessary to implement the redress resolution.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest Arab-American civil rights organization in the US, welcomed the move, nevertheless, because it offers at least some recourse to address long-standing complaints about allegedly arbitrary, rude and over-zealous security checks.

These checks and the hassle of going to and through US airports has been a major reason for the slump in US tourism over the past few years.

In late January, the Discover America Partnership unveiled a three-point plan, A Blueprint to Discover America, designed to reverse the decline in foreign travel to the United States and by “overcoming the negative perceptions of our entry process. This three-pronged plan addresses the heart of the deterrents — visa policy, entry policies and perceptions around the world.”

The plan calls for calls for visitors to be processed within 30 minutes by hiring 250 new customs and immigrations officers. It calls for turning the 12 busiest inbound US airports into “world models” through enhanced line management, automated forms and traffic management processes, and an expanded use of technology.

It also calls for visa applications to be processed within 30 days and suggests methods to reduce the obstacles and barriers associated with the visa interview process, including videoconferencing and mobile consulate operations.

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) issued a statement saying that “Garnering consumer confidence and securing foreign travelers’ desire to visit the United States for business or pleasure is critical to the survival and growth of our industry — the travel suppliers whose services travel agents sell and the national economy whose vitality depends upon a thriving travel and transportation industry.

“ASTA believes strongly that significant efforts must be made to enhance the entry experience of foreign visitors to the United States and that that process begins long before they arrive at a U.S. airport.

“Today, leisure travelers have choices of how to vacation, including the option to simply visit another country, something that in the long-term will have disastrous consequences for our industry and the economy. Business travelers, on the other hand, may have fewer options about whether to travel, but modern technology is providing new choices for them as well,” ASTA said.

“It is essential that (US) government security policies facilitate a balanced effect on the growth of travel demand. This plan puts forth just that effort, working to make the entry process more efficient and welcoming without sacrificing security concerns,” ASTA said.

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