A woman holds a miniature American flag during a naturalization ceremony in San Diego, California, U.S. (Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg)

If You Want to Fly to America, Get Ready to Be Interrogated

(Bloomberg) -- Travelers headed to America may be talking more with their airline.

The Department of Homeland Security will require carriers to begin asking U.S.-bound passengers additional screening questions on about 2,100 daily flights starting on Thursday. These conversations may include the purpose of a trip, whether a bag has been in the traveler’s possession at all times and other queries the government has not disclosed.

For many U.S. airlines, the impact of this requirement is minimal because they’ve already been doing these types of interactions with U.S.-bound passengers on many, but not all, of their flights. Others have not. Many carriers, including Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and Delta Air Lines Inc., are telling customers flying to America to allow at least three hours before departure to navigate security.

Emirates said the “pre-screening interviews” will occur at check-in counters for originating passengers and at the boarding gate for passengers transferring in Dubai to a flight to the U.S. 

The screening changes are part of a broader Trump administration effort to raise what the Department of Homeland Security calls the “global baseline” for aviation security, and was begun by former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. He was named President Donald Trump’s chief of staff in July.

It’s also the latest in a series of moves by the White House to increase security protocols at airports. The DHS announced this summer that travelers to the U.S. would face additional screening, including a more rigorous approach to explosives detection of electronic devices. Carriers were given 120 days to comply with the mandate for additional verbal screening of passengers. They also face new rules on how to secure checked baggage as well as their aircraft when parked abroad. 

The edict followed a lengthy debate among airlines, government officials and airports about whether the U.S. would expand worldwide a ban on laptop computers and other large electronics from airline cabins it had imposed on flights originating from 10 Middle East airports. Ultimately, the U.S. yielded to industry concerns about such a prohibition.

Airlines’ talks with customers are generally modeled after the type of interactions that Transportation Security Administration “behavior detection officers” have with passengers at airports, according to a person familiar with the issue. These officers’ conversations attempt to detect people displaying verbal cues of suspicious behavior, excessive fear or stress and then direct those travelers to additional screening.

Since January, Trump has also been a waging a court battle to ban travelers from various nations, originally focusing exclusively on several Muslim-majority countries. The latest administration policy, issued in September, seeks to bar entry to travelers from eight nations: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela. Federal courts have blocked those efforts as unconstitutional—including the latest version—in a dispute that will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A spokesman for the U.S. airlines’ trade group, Airlines for America, said the DHS offered “flexibility” to help ensure that airlines remain compliant with the new questioning policy. The carriers “continue to work with DHS officials to best achieve our shared security goals while minimizing the impact to the traveling public,” spokesman Vaughn Jennings said.

The U.S. Travel Association said travelers would benefit if they knew that such policy changes are caused by “specific vulnerabilities” in aviation security. “The world should hear that they are not intended to discourage travel generally, and that legitimate business and leisure travelers are as welcome as ever in the U.S.,” USTA Executive Vice President Jonathan Grella said in a statement.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Bachman in Dallas at jbachman2@bloomberg.net.

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