Wednesday, 19 July 2006
DHS (doesn't) want comments on costs of passenger manifest rules
A week ago, The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division of the USA Department of Homeland Security announced proposed new rules to require international airlines flying to, from, or even over the USA to give the CBP complete passenger and crew manifests between 15 minutes and an hour before push-back of the plane from the gate, instead of 15 minutes after take-off as provided by the rules in effect since last October . Since it typically takes at least 15 minutes for a large plane of the sort used for most international flights to taxi from "push-back" to "wheels-up", the change would effectively require that the manifest be finalized from 45 to 90 minutes earlier than under the present rule.
The proposed changes to the "Advanced Passenger Information System" (APIS) rules would also forbid airlines from allowing anyone to board an international flight, or even issuing them a boarding pass, at any time until their identifying information (name, passport number, etc.) is sent to CBP and individual "permission to board" is received from the CBP.
Costly changes, to say the least, for airlines and international travellers (and, in the case of business travellers, their employers). The CBP estimated that the current rules would cost the airlines exactly a billion dollars , and now estimates that the proposed changes would cost an additional US$612 million to $2.327 billion over the next 10 years.
I found those estimates absurdly low, and absurdly precise. Where did four significant digits in the high and low estimates come from this time, when the costs of the original rule were estimated to only one digit, or perhaps just one bit (a nice round "one billion dollars")?
Adding 45 to 90 minutes to the required minimum connecting times for flights to the USA would require massive revisions to airline schedules, with complex ripple effects throughout airline and airport operations. Requiring airlines to deny boarding to anyone seeking issuance of a boarding pass less than 15 to 60 minutes before push-back -- including standby passengers, passengers who have missed other flights or had them delayed or cancelled, and last-minute walk-up ticket purchasers (typically with urgent business or family emergencies sufficient to justify paying international walkup fares in the thousands of U.S. dollars per ticket, and commensurate consequential costs if they are delayed) -- would force most of those would-be last-minute boarders, of which there are a few on almost every flight, to wait 24 hours for the next daily international flight on the route. And those are only a few of the many costly and complicated consequences of the proposed rule changes
But I searched in vain for any explanation for the CBP's bizarre cost estimates, only to find out after a week that "inadvertently" it had not been made public. I've finally gotten a look at it, and it's immediately clear why the CBP tried to bury it: It's a joke, ignoring many of the cost implications and lowballing others by at least an order of magnitude, in some case more.
The APIS rule change proposal was announced 12 July 2006 with a press release, linked to a draft of the proposal, on both the DHS and CBP Web sites. The government even paid to broadcast the announcement through PR Newswire.
Each of those versions of the press release said (as of 12 July 2006) that "The text of the proposed rule is [n.b. present tense] available on CBP's website at www.cbp.gov". The linked file on the CBP Web site said (also as of 12 July 2006) that:
The impacts on carriers, travelers, and others potentially affected by this rule are examined in detail in the "Regulatory Assessment" which is [n.b. again present tense] available in the docket for this rulemaking (http://www.eparegulations.gov [sic]; see also http://www.cbp.gov ). CBP is soliciting comments on the assumptions and estimates made in the economic analysis.
There appears to be no Web site at all at "http://www.eparegulations.gov". I guessed that perhaps what might be meant was "http://www.regulations.gov" (where had the extraneous "epa" in the domain name come from?), but I could find nothing relevant there at all as of 12 July. There was no "Regulatory Assessment" at "http://www.cbp.gov" other than the unsupported conclusions in the proposed rule itself. Were these intended themselves to constitute the supposed "details"? That seemed the only inference consistent with the notice.
Two days later on 14 July 2006 the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register (71 FR 40035-40048) with exactly the same present-tense references to the same unhelpful URL's. That same day, a copy of the Federal Register notice also appeared, if one guessed to search for it there, in an otherwise-empty docket at http://www.regulations.gov . But still no clue as to the basis for the cost estimates.
Yesterday -- a week after the first posting of the notice and the announcement of availability of "details" of the economic analysis allegedly supporting it -- I contacted the CBP to find out whether "what you see is what you get" or whether there actually was some other, as yet undisclosed, background information.
Eventually Harold Singer, Director of the Regulations and Disclosure law Division of the CBP, told me that there was a separate document providing the basis for the cost estimates in the notice of proposed rulemaking, but that it hadn't been placed in the docket -- and that they hadn't realized this until I called. "There's a new document management system which we are still learning how to use", he said. (And I guess that even when working with a new system they don't bother to test that something they tried to "publish" has actually been made accessible.)
Shortly after the close of regular business hours in Washington yesterday -- a full business week after the notice saying the details were available -- the 69-page "Regulatory Assessment" appeared, deeply buried, in a docket accessible through http://www.regulations.gov (although there's still no clue of its existence at either of the two URL's where readers of the press release, the DHS and CBP web sites, and the Federal Register are told to look for it).
Singer said that anyone who wanted the basis for the cost estimates "could have done what you did." But he couldn't explain why anyone would have been looking for this document, a week after it was announced to have been posted, with new searches at a different URL. "I believe that this wasn't an error that would require re-publication in the Federal Register or an extension of the comment period. If it went a week, yes, but since it was less than a week, ...." he trailed off.
I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to find where the CBP has put it. If you want a clue, look for USCBP-2005-0003-0005 . But that document number isn't mentioned anywhere in public, except for the search result that retrieves the docket index.) Extra credit to anyone who can provide me with a permanent static URL to the "Regulatory Assessment".
If you don't want to waste your time, I've posted local copies of both the Proposed Rule and the Regulatory Assessment . The assumptions on which it is based are, to anyone familiar with airline schedules and procedures, patently absurd, and I'll be posting a detailed critique later.
Comments are due by 14 August 2006 -- unless the proposal is re-published with the Regulatory Analysis, or the deadline is extended, as airlines have already requested due to the high cost and complexity of compliance with the proposed rule change.
[Update, 6 August 2006: At the request of airlines, cruise lines, and the trade association representing computerized reservations systems and Internet travel agencies, the comment deadline has been extended by 60 days, to 12 October 2006, according to a new notice in the Federal Register on 2 August 2006. And a link to the Regulatory Assessment has finally been added to the press release section of the CBP Web site.]Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 19 July 2006, 11:11 (11:11 AM)