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US, EU Butt Heads On Airline Info

A top American official urged European leaders Saturday to cooperate with U.S. demands to share information on airline passengers such as names, place of birth and date of birth, saying European resistance was hampering anti-terrorism efforts.

Tom Ridge, secretary for homeland security, said the European Union's demand to protect passengers' privacy must be balanced by the right of those passengers to travel safely. He noted that the United States wasn't requesting information on health or religion.

Ridge pressed his point at a conference here of European political and financial leaders, raising an issue that EU officials have warned could lead to a new trans-Atlantic confrontation.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring airlines to submit passenger data within 15 minutes after their plane departs for the United States. Before it lands, the information is checked against a combined federal law enforcement database.

The EU reached an interim agreement with the United States to implement the law in March, but there are fears that the legislation violates basic EU privacy standards.

EU law currently bans airlines from sharing the type of information sought except on a case-by-case basis, and the European Parliament has indicated it wants to scrap the interim deal altogether.

Ridge said he had asked the Italian interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, to use Italy's six-month presidency of the EU to persuade the bloc to come around to the U.S. position and develop a permanent common protocol for sharing flight information.

"One of the most significant challenges for the global community is to enjoy the safety of travelers and legitimate cargo, which means we need to work together to develop international standards," Ridge told reporters on the sidelines of the conference.

He said the United States had already made concessions to the EU to limit the type of information sought and ensure that it was used only for anti-terrorism controls, but said the Europeans had to loosen up on their demands too.

"Americans believe in the right of privacy as well," he said. "But let's find a balance between the right to privacy and the right to be secure in your travels, the right to live."

"We understand that the European Union has and does require us to show that it is going to be used for very limited purposes. We believe we've done that," he added.

The new U.S. law came into effect March 5. It requires airlines to provide the U.S. government with passenger details such names, phone and credit card numbers as well as meal choices.

Because of the EU law banning the sharing of such information, European airlines face fines of up to $6,000 a passenger and the loss of landing rights if they fail to comply.

The EU Internal Market Commissioner, Frits Bolkstein, warned Ridge in June that if negotiations to bridge the two laws failed, a "highly charged trans-Atlantic confrontation" could ensue.

The European Commission is set to meet with Asa Hutchison, U.S. undersecretary for border and transportation security, in Brussels on Sept. 22 to try to resolve the differences.

If there is no deal, EU officials have said the EU would have to instruct national data agencies to stop sharing data with Washington and fine carriers that do so, leaving airlines caught in the middle.

Ridge said there was still "some time to go to reconcile our differences" but stressed that the United States was firm in its intention to move aggressively on the issue.

As an incentive of sorts, he said the United States fully intended to share the same type of passenger information on U.S. carriers with Europeans once formal standards are agreed upon.

"Looking at this request beyond just a data protection issue but as a mutual security issue is something that can help us get closer to resolving our differences," he said.

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