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EU Court to Rule on US Data Request on Incoming Airline Passengers - 2004-04-21

A plan for European airlines to provide the U.S. government information on passengers flying to the United States has hit a legal obstacle. The European Union's highest court has been asked to rule on whether the measure violates EU privacy laws.

In a close vote, the European Parliament called for the European Court of Justice to rule on the plan. Some lawmakers describe the agreement as bad for privacy and legally flawed.

"What we are seeking is the advice of the Court of Justice on whether this is compatible with our own law and treaty," said Liberal Democrat leader Graham Watson.

The European Parliament has no legal power over the agreement. But if the European Court of Justice rules against it, changes would be required in the pact. The court can take up to two years to issue its finding.

The passenger data agreement was reached between the European Commission, the EU executive body and U.S. officials. Washington has wanted airlines flying to the United States to release detailed passenger information, including credit card numbers and meal preferences, to help security agencies spot potential terrorists.

European Commissioner Chris Patten defended the agreement, saying U.S. concerns are understandable.

"If we had been through what New York went through on September 11, 2001, I think we would have wanted our governments to do everything possible to secure our freedom," he said.

Mr. Patten also warned that without the agreement, air travel would be severely disrupted.

"Let us be clear what happens if we have to delay this for months, or do not have it at all - complete disarray for the next few months, airlines facing financial chaos, people waiting in queues [lines]," he said.

If EU airlines do not comply with the U.S. data request, they face fines of up to $6,000 per passenger, and could even have their landing rights taken away. Some airlines have already started providing the information.

EU lawmakers say they support the fight against terrorism, but are concerned that U.S. security plans do not provide enough protection for personal privacy. They are concerned that confidential information could make its way to people, businesses or agencies that should not have it.

U.S. officials say they would share such information with foreign law enforcement agencies only on a selective, case-by-case, basis.