The world's largest airline said late Friday that in June 2002 it shared approximately 1.2 million passenger itineraries with the Transportation Security Administration and, inadvertently, four research companies vying for contracts with the agency.
Fort Worth, Texas-based American said it agreed to provide the TSA with the information "because of the heightened interest in aviation security at the time and American's desire to ensure its passenger and crew safety" following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which two of its planes were hijacked.
The passenger data was turned over to the TSA by Airline Automation Inc., a revenue-management technology provider hired by American.
Then, at the behest of the TSA and without American's consent, Airline Automation shared the passenger data with the four research companies - HNC Software, Infoglide Software, Ascent Technology and Lockheed Martin, American spokesman John Hotard said.
David Coburn, a Washington lawyer representing Airline Automation, disputed American's claim that it did not authorize any sharing of the data beyond the TSA.
Hotard said American only recently became aware of the situation after conducting an internal review prompted by similar disclosures by JetBlue Airways and Northwest Airlines.
"This underscores the fact that there's now a privacy crisis within the airline industry, largely driven by government demands for passenger data," said David Sobel, general counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
"It has been a matter of secret disclosures, followed by belated admissions," he added. "We are clearly at a point where Congress needs to take a close look at privacy issues relating to air travel."
A nationwide computer system aimed at screening all airline passengers is being developed by the TSA. The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, ordered by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, will check such things as credit reports and consumer transactions and compare passenger names with those on government watch lists.