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Terror Rules Could Affect US Flights of Austrian Air Carriers - 2003-08-30


The Austrian Data Protection Commission is claiming that information on airline passengers that the United States is requiring cannot be released in Austria for legal reasons. It is a development that could hamper U.S.-bound flights from the European country.

The problem for Austria is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security requirement that airlines pass on Passenger Name Records (PNR) data for flights to the United States. This sort of information includes, among other things, the passenger's name and place of birth, gender, passport number and contact numbers.

But the Austrian Data Protection Commission says that because it could also include other personal information, the U.S. law aimed at fighting terrorism cannot be applied in Austria for legal reasons.

The commission says airlines gather information such as meals passengers book, whether they need wheelchairs, addresses of relatives, as well as credit card numbers. This kind of information, Austrian officials say, must remain confidential under Austria's own laws on data protection.

U.S. Homeland Security Officials are insisting on this data and have given Austrian Airlines until September 12 to come into line. If no solution is found by then, the Austrian carrier's flights to the United States could be denied landing rights.

"We from the Austrian side have been trying to figure out how we could set up a technical system where these PNR data could be filtered [to provide] only that amount of data which can be legally transferred from our point of view," explained Waltraut Kotschy, an expert working for the commission in Vienna on a possible compromise. "Actually, we would have to find also an understanding from the American side that they also agree that this set of data is what they absolutely necessarily need."

Ms. Kotschy says Austria is seeking an extension of the September deadline from the United States, but it could take months before a satisfactory solution is found.

Next week, Austrian Interior Minister Ernst Strasser will fly to Washington for talks with senior U.S. government officials on the fight against terrorism, frontier security and biometric data.

The Austrian Data Protection Commission says it hopes Mr. Strasser will raise the question of passenger name records with appropriate officials there.