14 October 2007

* US demands air passengers ask its permission to fly

"The Register" -- - Under new rules proposed by the Transport Security Administration (TSA), all airline passengers would need advance permission before flying into, through, or over the United States regardless of citizenship or the airline's national origin.

Currently, the Advanced Passenger Information System, operated by the Customs and Border Patrol, requires airlines to forward a list of passenger information no later than 15 minutes before flights from the US take off (international flights bound for the US have until 15 minutes after take-off). Planes are diverted if a passenger on board is on the no-fly list.

The new rules mean this information must be submitted 72 hours before departure. Only those given clearance will get a boarding pass. The TSA estimates that 90 to 93 per cent of all travel reservations are final by then.

The proposed rules require the following information for each passenger: full name, sex, date of birth, and redress number (assigned to passengers who use the Travel Redress Inquiry Program because they have been mistakenly placed on the no-fly list), and known traveller number (once there is a programme in place for registering known travellers whose backgrounds have been checked). Non-travellers entering secure areas, such as parents escorting children, will also need clearance.

The TSA held a public hearing in Washington DC on 20 September, which heard comments from both privacy advocates and airline industry representatives from Qantas, the Regional Airline Association, IATA, and the American Society of Travel Agents. The privacy advocates came from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Identity Project. All were negative.

The proposals should be withdrawn entirely, argued Edward Hasbrouck, author of The Practical Nomad and the leading expert on travel data privacy. "Obscured by the euphemistic language of 'screening' is the fact that travellers would be required to get permission before they can travel."

Hasbrouck submitted that requiring clearance in order to travel violates the US First Amendment right of assembly, the central claim in John Gilmore's case against the US government over the requirement to show photo ID for domestic travel.

In addition, the TSA is required to study the impact of the proposals on small economic entities (such as sole traders). Finally, the TSA provides no way for individuals to tell whether their government-issued ID is actually required by law, opening the way for rampant identity theft.

ACLU's Barry Steinhardt quoted press reports of 500,000 to 750,000 people on the watch list (of which the no-fly list is a subset). "If there are that many terrorists in the US, we'd all be dead."

TSA representative Kip Hawley noted that the list has been carefully investigated and halved over the last year. "Half of grossly bloated is still bloated," Steinhardt replied.

The airline industry representatives' objections were largely logistical. They argued that the 60-day timeframe the TSA proposes to allow for implementation from the publication date of the final rules is much too short. They want a year to revamp many IT systems, especially, as the Qantas representative said, as no one will start until they're sure there will be no further changes.

In addition, many were concerned about the impact on new, convenient and cash-saving technologies, such as checking in at home, or storing a boarding pass in a PDA.

One additional point, also raised by Hasbrouck: the data the TSA requires will be collected by the airlines who presumably will keep it for their own purposes – a "government-coerced informational windfall", he called it.

The third parties who actually do much of the airline industry's data processing, the Global Distribution Systems and Computer Reservations Systems, were missing from the hearing.-(WM. Grossman)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.