Passport rules for air travel stiffening

Birth certificate or driver's license won't do for flight to Mexico, Canada

January 16, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

Travelers flying between the United States and the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada this month will need a passport - the first of sweeping changes in documentation resulting from the terrorist attacks in 2001.

The new Department of Homeland Security rules for air travelers go into effect Jan. 23 and extend to land and sea travel next year. Most people enter or leave the United States by land. Requiring passports - instead of commonly used birth certificates or driver's licenses - was recommended by the Sept. 11 commission and mandated by Congress in 2004. But the change was delayed and implementation staggered to ease fears of hurting tourism and to allay concerns of passengers and trading partners.

"There were concerns that applying this law might discourage travelers," said Steve Royster, a State Department spokesman. "But security is paramount."

Along with new passports this summer that will be embedded with computer chips holding passenger information, the rules are designed to reduce forgery and ease lines at the nation's borders. They will become part of an overall Homeland Security effort to shore up the borders with troops, terrorist watch lists, and cargo and passenger screening after years of criticism that security is lax.

The rules for air travel will affect millions of people, including many traveling to and from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Seven of 10 international cities with direct routes to BWI are in regions where the changes apply.

Birth certificates and drivers licenses had long been used by those frequently crossing the borders with Mexico or Canada for work or leisure because they were convenient and cheaper than a $97 passport. But State Department officials say thousands of U.S. agencies issue the other documents, making authentication tough and time-consuming. In 2005, the U.S. government confiscated 75,000 fraudulent documents.

Already, State Department officials say more than a quarter of Americans, or 72 million people, have a passport and new applications have been pouring in. The State Department reports that in November, 1.1 million people applied for a passport, up about 60 percent from the year before.

"Officials will have much greater confidence in the documents," said Derwood Staeben, a senior adviser on passports at the State Department. "This is security. But we expect the lines to go faster."

Exceptions to the new passport rules will be those with special cards issued to those traveling between Canada and the United States for work, merchant mariners with Coast Guard documents and permanent residents with "green cards." Current passports are good until their expiration date.

U.S. citizens already needed a passport to go to Central and South America, but for the first time will need a passport to return home.

The State Department also is developing a new passport card for frequent travelers who cross land and sea borders with neighboring countries. The documents will be the size of a credit card, cost less than a passport and won't have to be removed from a wallet or car to be read.

For many world travelers, the new rules shouldn't have too great an impact because passports already are required elsewhere, said Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel managers.

"Most business travelers that travel globally obviously have them," he said. "Twenty percent of all travel by U.S. corporations is out of the country. Road warriors are taken care of."

The coalition and other travel groups did not oppose the new passport rules. Mitchell said the rules might confuse or annoy some frequent travelers and could dampen travel. But five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said the federal government needed to have a better idea of who was crossing the border.

The electronic passports have, however, caused some concern. Mitchell and privacy advocates lobbied for protection from outsiders trying to steal information with remote electronic readers. But he said the government has taken encouraging steps, such as adding metallic covers that prevent them from being read when closed.

The Air Transport Association, a trade group representing U.S. airlines, was more concerned with timing. It didn't want new rules implemented until after the busy holiday season.

At BWI, close to two dozen flights a day come and go from Toronto, Mexico City and Montego Bay, Jamaica, among others. It has a fraction of the international travelers of the country's biggest hubs, but has a mix that favors the Western Hemisphere. An airport spokesman said federal and airline officials are doing a good job of advertising the new rules.

It appears, however, that many people at BWI didn't need notice. Dawna Elias, a native of Canada who now lives in Baltimore, said she used to travel back and forth without a passport. But the Sept. 11 attacks gave her pause.

"I just got one recently," said Elias, who was seeing her mother, Edie, off on an afternoon flight from BWI to Toronto. "It seemed like a good idea to have one. I anticipated that they'd start requiring one."

Elias said she'd now have to get her 11-month-old daughter, Eva, her own passport.

On her mother's flight, a steady flow of passengers presented passports. About 58 percent of U.S. travelers to and from Mexico already have a passport. The number rises to 69 percent for Canada and 75 percent for the Caribbean, according to Homeland Security data.

Passports could be a bigger issue next year when those traveling by land or sea are subject to the new rule. More than 300 million people entered the country last year at land crossings. Of the 422 million visitors to the United States last year, 87 million came by air.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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