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INS and Airline Industry Relations
Report Number I-2000-020
September 2000


The INS Inspections program administers and enforces immigration laws related to entry into the United States. INS inspects all persons seeking admission to or transiting through the United States to determine whether these individuals qualify for admission and, if so, the conditions under which they may enter the United States. In fiscal year (FY) 1999, INS inspected more than 75 million airline passengers at U.S. international airports. The three airports with the highest volume of international passengers - John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Miami International Airport (Miami), and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) - accounted for almost one-third of the passengers arriving at U.S. international airports.

In 1990, Congress amended Section 286 of the INA to impose a limit of 45 minutes within which INS must complete the typical primary inspection of all passengers and crew on scheduled international commercial airline flights arriving at U.S. airports. If individual passengers require additional processing for any reason (for example, suspected fraudulent documents), a secondary inspection is performed. The secondary inspection is not included in the 45-minute limit.

To meet its requirement for completing initial inspections at airports within 45 minutes, Inspections must balance the staff available against the numbers of passengers arriving at each U.S. international airport. INS uses some automated procedures to aid in completing inspections within the imposed time frame. For example, under the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), widely used at the major airports, airlines send advance electronic data to INS to check passengers against available records before a flight arrives.2 This process alerts INS to potential problems in advance and allows INS to inspect flights more quickly by referring certain passengers directly for a secondary inspection. A second automated process in more limited use is the INS Passenger Accelerated Service System (INSPASS). This system allows qualified passengers to bypass the regular inspection process and use a specially designated booth that electronically reads the passenger's handprint and a card previously issued to the passenger by INS. The INSPASS system is intended for use by qualified frequent travelers and is designed to reduce the passenger inspection processing time. To enroll in the system, a passenger must undergo prescreening and receive an INSPASS card from INS.

Approximately 250 airlines bring passengers to the United States from foreign countries. Section 273(a)(1) of the INA makes it unlawful for a transportation company to bring any person to the United States who does not possess a valid passport and, if required, a valid visa. Under Section 273(b) of the INA, an airline is subject to a fine for bringing aliens to the United States without valid documents. Additionally, an airline that brings an improperly documented passenger to the United States is responsible for expeditiously transporting the passenger back to the country of origin. Both foreign and domestically owned airlines are required to screen passengers at foreign airports to prevent improperly documented aliens from boarding an aircraft bound for the United States. Typically, the screening includes an examination of the passenger's travel documents (e.g., passport and visa, if required) by an airline representative immediately prior to the passenger boarding an aircraft. Ideally, the airline representative will not allow a passenger to board the aircraft if the passenger's documents are found to be invalid because the documents have expired, are fraudulent, or are not complete. In this respect, the international airline industry serves as an important part of the Government's control strategy in preventing an improperly documented passenger from flying to the United States.

Section 273(e) of the INA provides that a fine, imposed under this section, may be reduced, refunded, or waived in accord with regulations implemented in 1998, if the airline demonstrates that it has properly screened all passengers on the aircraft. Pursuant to the implementation of this section, airlines may sign Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) agreeing to conditions for automatic INS "mitigation" (reduction) of the fines imposed under INA Section 273. Under these conditions, airlines must establish the screening procedures mentioned above and training for airline personnel on how to conduct the screenings. At the time of our review, INS had signed MOUs for fines mitigation with 75 airlines.

User Fee Advisory Committee Meetings

In 1986, an amendment to Section 286(k) of the INA established a user fee to be paid by passengers on commercial airlines. The fee was to fund INS inspections operations at air and sea ports-of-entry and other activities related to inspections, including detention of improperly documented aliens. Section 286(k) also established a User Fee Advisory Committee consisting of representatives from INS and the transportation industries subject to the fee. In keeping with the law and its charter, the advisory committee meets twice a year. Because most user fee funds are generated by the airline industry, most issues discussed at the meeting relate to the airline industry. The committee's mandated role is to advise the Commissioner of INS on issues such as the time periods during which inspection services should be performed, the proper number and deployment of inspection officers, the level of fees, and the appropriateness of any proposed fee. The law requires INS to give "substantial consideration" to the views of the advisory committee. (See Appendix I for the User Fee Advisory Committee charter and list of members.)

Sharing Tactical Information3

INS seeks to identify trends in the methods used by improperly documented aliens attempting to enter the United States. When tactical information relating to an emerging trend is shared with an airline, its agents are better able to prevent improperly documented passengers from boarding a flight bound for the United States. Relevant trends can include improperly documented passengers' unusual travel routes (e.g., Chinese nationals arriving via Iceland), several improperly documented passengers with similar fraudulent documents, or other recurring INS observations that may point to illegal activity. Such trends are often first noticed through observations and subsequent analyses by INS officers conducting the normal passenger inspection process as international flights arrive. In other instances, airline agents may become suspicious of certain passengers based on a purchase of blocks of tickets or use of stolen passports. If airline personnel alert INS in advance, inspectors may be able to identify improperly documented passengers more readily. Conversely, if INS alerts an airline(s) to trends, the airline can more easily identify improperly documented passengers and prevent their boarding. INS must be careful about the information it provides the airlines to ensure that security sensitive information is not included. However, the exchange of tactical information relevant to the screening and inspection processes can be of mutual benefit to INS and to airlines.

Carrier Training

Section 286(h)(2)(A)(iv) of the INA authorized the use of user fee funds starting in FY 1997 to provide training and technical assistance to commercial airline personnel. The purpose of the training is to aid the airlines in detecting fraudulent documents presented by passengers traveling to the United States. In general, the INS through airline training seeks to teach airline agents how to examine travel documents (i.e., passports, visas) that are presented by passengers overseas seeking to board aircraft bound for the United States. The agents are taught to recognize out-of-date documents, incomplete documents, or fraudulent documents including valid documents that have been altered. Typically, airline industry personnel working in foreign countries that board passengers bound for the United States receive this training. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) amended the INA to state that INS "shall provide for expenditures for training and assistance [to commercial airline personnel of] . . . not less than 5 percent of the total of the expenses incurred" for all user fee purposes. Although Congress authorized the use of funding for training and assistance, it did not appropriate any user fee funds expressly for this purpose. Because INS does not keep centralized records on the amounts spent on this activity, we could not determine what was actually expended by INS for training and assistance to airlines.

INS's training program for airline industry personnel is decentralized. INS's Carrier Affairs Office (CAO), Office of International Affairs, and three offices at major international airports all conduct some training for airline personnel. The CAO was created in 1996 as a sub-unit of INS's Inspections program. Its mission is based on the requirement in IIRIRA that INS train and assist commercial airlines in determining the validity of travel documents presented by passengers. The CAO provides guidance and assistance to INS field offices and the transportation industry on issues relating to the admissibility of persons seeking to enter the United States and on deterrence of fraudulent entry. Currently, the CAO's training program has a staff of five. Soon after the CAO was created, 60 additional positions were requested to perform carrier consultant work but 50 of these positions were never funded.4 A director was appointed to head the training program in FY 1999.

Until recently, the CAO had been using an interim training curriculum to train airline industry personnel. In March 2000, a new curriculum (the Carrier Training Course) was completed by a commercial contractor. The new curriculum is intended for use by both INS and airline instructors to train airline industry personnel. The CAO also offers a distance learning curriculum, which serves as a self-taught refresher course for airline industry personnel who have already been trained. The distance learning curriculum consists of a video, a compact disk, a training passport, and special tools for identifying fraudulent documents, e.g., a black light and magnifier.

To augment the amount of airline training provided by its own staff of four professional trainers, the CAO has developed the "train-the-trainer" program. Under this program, the CAO trains both airline personnel and INS officers in the field to serve as part-time and full-time instructors to train airline industry personnel. As of May 2000, 30 INS officers stationed around the world attended a two-week course conducted by CAO that was intended to prepare them to use the new CAO curriculum. Additionally, some professional and non-professional airline instructors also attended an identical course.

The CAO and three INS offices located at major U.S. international airports perform the majority of all INS training of airline employees conducted in the United States. Prior to the formation of the CAO's training program, various INS offices (primarily overseas offices) developed their own curriculum to train airlines in screening airline passengers. Under an agreement between the Office of International Affairs (OIA) and the CAO, the OIA retains responsibility for most of this training conducted overseas. With some assistance from INS offices located at major U.S. international airports, OIA conducts 75 percent of all INS training of airline employees conducted worldwide. This training is typically performed by INS officers stationed overseas but the CAO curriculum is not always used because less than 50 percent of the officers have been trained in its use. The CAO is responsible for about 25 percent of the overseas training.

Training and Tactical Information Sharing at Local INS Airport Offices

In addition to the CAO training and the training conducted in foreign countries by INS overseas offices, two domestic INS airport offices have established local airline training and tactical information sharing programs. A third airport office is in the process of developing a program. These local training programs have the same purpose as the CAO training program, that is, to assist airlines in preventing improperly documented passengers from boarding commercial aircraft bound for the United States. The local programs, however, focus more on locally identified problems and target trends specific to the geographic areas from which flights arrive at their respective airports. An advantage of training conducted locally is the opportunity to develop and maintain contacts between INS and airline personnel and to continue an exchange of tactical information that may assist them in identifying improperly documented passengers more readily. Typically, when an INS domestic airport office conducts training, the airline industry employees, who board passengers in foreign countries, are flown to the INS domestic airport office that provides the training.

JFK International Airport - A comprehensive INS carrier consultant program was initiated at JFK airport in New York, with the support of the INS district and INS port directors. With this program, INS officials at JFK started to train airline personnel and share tactical information with them in 1992, at a period when large numbers of aliens, who had destroyed their travel documents in flight, were arriving at the airport and requesting asylum. The INS reported that, from the program's inception in 1992 to April 1999, the INS training program at JFK trained 2,187 airline agents who were stationed in foreign countries and flown to JFK to receive the INS training. Airlines participating in the program voluntarily reported having refused boarding to over 1,550 people at foreign ports. INS's JFK carrier consultant program is largely independent of the CAO, and INS officials at JFK have designed their training and tactical information sharing to address the needs of those international flights coming to JFK. The CAO did, however, provide INS officials at JFK funding for a conference, and a few JFK INS inspectors have participated in the CAO training sessions at other locations.

Miami International Airport - In 1996, the INS Miami airport office initiated a carrier consultant program and staffed the program with two INS inspectors. Approximately one year later, the program lapsed but was revived in February 1999 and given strong support by a new INS port director. As of November 1999, INS's Miami airport office had four inspectors assigned as carrier consultants to perform airline training and tactical information sharing as their primary duties. These carrier consultants use only one or two of the seven chapters from the CAO interim training curriculum. In lieu of the other chapters, they have tailored their lesson plans and tactical information sharing to address the needs of those international flights coming to Miami, especially flights originating in South America.

LAX International Airport - INS officials at LAX in Los Angeles, California began developing a carrier consultant program in conjunction with the CAO early in calendar year 1998. To help establish this carrier consultant training program, the CAO worked with INS officials at LAX to prepare a conference for airlines held in June 1998. A 5-day seminar, designed to publicize the program and the training that was available to the airline industry, was conducted in late September 1999. Unlike the INS carrier consultant programs at JFK and Miami, the INS LAX program plans to use the full CAO training curriculum. As of November 1999, the program was still in the early stages of development and was focusing on training and not on sharing tactical information.

Airline Industry Trade Organizations Representing Transportation Industries

INS contacts with the airline industry include not only individual airlines but also airline industry trade organizations. The Air Transport Association of America, Inc. (ATA) is an airline trade association representing mainly U.S. airline interests. ATA has a membership of 23 U.S. and five associate (non-U.S.) airlines. The major U.S. airlines are members of ATA. ATA defines its mission as "assisting the airline industry [in providing] the world's safest system of transportation, transmitting technical expertise . . . among member airlines, advocating for fair airline taxation and regulation worldwide, [and] ensuring a profitable and competitive industry."

The International Air Transportation Association (IATA) has a membership of 265 airlines, including U.S. and international airlines. The role of IATA is to represent the international airline industry and to coordinate industry reactions and positions concerning immigration and customs issues.

ATA and IATA are the two main airline trade associations interacting with INS. Representatives of the organizations serve on the User Fee Advisory Committee and act on behalf of their membership in a range of relations with INS.

Summary of Methodology (See Appendix II for Complete Details)

To gain a perspective on the INS-airline industry relationship, we examined both national- and local-level interactions. We interviewed INS and airline industry officials regarding their interactions in the areas of training, tactical information, and general communication. These interviews were conducted at both the headquarters and local levels. We visited JFK International Airport in New York, Los Angeles International Airport in California, Miami International Airport in Florida, and Portland International Airport in Oregon. We also reviewed the transcribed minutes of the User Fee Advisory Committee meetings covering more than a 3-year period.

In assessing the interactions between INS and the airlines, we focused solely on commercial airlines carrying international passengers to the United States. While we reviewed the CAO and port training provided to the airlines, we did not focus on training provided by INS offices overseas. We did not interview any airline agents who received training.


  1. Most major airlines have entered into an APIS agreement with INS that requires each airline to transmit information on passengers soon after a flight has departed a foreign country and is bound for the United States. The information includes the passenger's name, date of birth, nationality and other information that helps INS begin inspecting passengers before they arrive. INS inspectors at airports compare the APIS information with data systems such as INS's Inter-Agency Border Inspection System, INS's National Automated Immigration Lookout System, and Treasury's Enforcement Communications System. Searching these databases can reveal that a passenger is inadmissible and the INS can deny the passenger entry upon arrival.

  2. Tactical information is information developed by INS that can be very useful to airlines in identifying improperly documented passengers. Tactical information includes new types of fraudulent documents, similar circuitous travel routes by improperly documented passengers, the modus operandi of alien smugglers, etc.

  3. A carrier consultant is an INS employee who trains and/or provides technical assistance to airline personnel who work at foreign airports to identify improperly documented passengers and thereby deny them boarding on flights bound for the United States. In addition, INS employees working as carrier consultants at JFK and Miami international airports also routinely provide INS tactical information to airlines at foreign airports that helps the airlines identify improperly documented passengers attempting to board flights bound for the United States.

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