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Airlines pressed for passenger lists

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Airlines flying international routes into the United States must by Thursday start submitting their passenger lists electronically or the U.S. Customs Service says it will subject all of their passengers to hand searches of both their checked luggage and carry-on bags.

Under provisions of the new airline security bill signed last week by President Bush, airlines must start submitting names of all passengers electronically within 60 days. Customs Service Commissioner Robert Bonner sent a letter to 58 airlines last week, informing them that the searches would commence now if they didn't start transmitting the lists by Thursday.

"I'm concerned about the security of our country, " Bonner said. "... before people come into the United States from overseas, we need to have an ability to know who that person is, to be able to do some checks, to run the names so that we have a higher level of comfort that terrorists are not entering this country."

In addition to being subjected to hand searches, passengers from airlines that don't agree to comply will be processed through customs after those from airlines that do. The new procedure is expected to cause significant delays for passengers of airlines not in compliance.

About a dozen airlines contacted the Customs Service Tuesday to say they would comply, including Russia's Aeroflot, Royal Jordanian and Pakistan International, according to a spokesperson for the agency.

Saudi Arabian Airlines is among those that have not yet responded. Federal investigators have said most of the men believed involved in the September 11 terrorist hijackings were of Saudi origin.

In a statement, Wanda Warner, a spokeswoman for the International Air Transport Association, said the vast majority of international airlines already provide electronic passenger lists voluntarily. But, she noted that some governments, particularly in Europe, have privacy provisions that prohibit airlines from doing so without passengers' consent.

She also said some non-U.S. airlines don't have the technological capability to submit the lists electronically, which is a "very expensive undertaking."

--CNN Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.


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