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US only kidding about 'clear to fly' January deadline?

ESTA mandatory but also optional from 12th, allegedly...

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Do you feel lucky? Registration with ESTA, the US 'clear to fly' system for visa waiver programme travellers to the US, is currently optional, but as of 12th January becomes mandatory. Or possibly, not - sort of mandatory but not compulsory instead.

So how does that work? ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), is being introduced by the Department of Homeland Security as, allegedly, a tougher and more secure way to screen air passengers than the current Visa Waiver Programme. It is billed by the DHS as a development of Visa Waiver, but has caused ructions with the EU, and could also be viewed as, effectively, the abolition of Visa Waiver. Some EU states have broken ranks and agreed to ESTA in order to achieve visa-free travel to the US, but with the 12th January deadline coming up, the airlines have to toe the line whether or not Brussels agrees.

But at least one airline, British Airways, is suggesting through its online check-in system that ESTA is already mandatory. "A US Travel Authorisation is required for all non US passport holders travelling on the Visa Waiver Programme", it inaccurately informs its customers. Clicking on the "Supply Information" link then whacks you straight through to the ESTA application site, which you'll note shares BA's premature enthusiasm by claiming: "All eligible travelers who wish to travel under the Visa Waiver Program must apply for authorization..."

BA passengers are however likely to be confused by the apparently mandatory but currently optional system, as the BA "Supply Information" link is also used to prompt passengers to fill in the - actually mandatory - PNR (Passenger Name Record) data prior to their flight. This data is passed by the carrier to the US authorities, but as it's submitted to BA's system, once you've filled it in the Supply Information link vanishes.

This doesn't happen with ESTA, because the data isn't submitted to the BA system, hence BA doesn't know whether or not you've submitted it. And hence - one presumes - quite a few passengers will be phoning up BA customer services asking if there's some problem with their travel authorisation.

A customer support representative The Register spoke to this week claimed to be puzzled that the ESTA link was on the site, given that ESTA isn't mandatory until the 12th January. But there would be no problem checking in and flying to the US, he said.

A BA press office spokesman agreed that ESTA wasn't mandatory prior to 12th January, but defended BA's early deployment of the system by pointing out that the "ESTA site" explains this, and that the system is optional prior to that date. But although this is certainly explained in the DHS' ESTA FAQs, there's no mention of it in the form BA links to, which actually implies that ESTA is already mandatory.

But even after ESTA is mandatory, the spokesman continued, there will be "leeway". Meaning? The DHS is "mindful that a cut-off date would be catastrophic for air travel", so people won't be stopped from flying to the United States, and won't be turned back when they get there. Probably? For how long after the 12th?

The spokesman said we'd have to talk to the DHS about that, but said that this mandatory/optional state of affairs could continue for "possibly months."

So, do you feel lucky? That would seem inadvisable, given that flouting a mandatory system on the basis that you've been told it's actually optional seems to us a pretty good way to get yourself added to a no-fly list. But there's a possible explanation to ESTA's initial halfway house status in the lack of a return channel from the ESTA system to the airline systems.

ESTA, remember, is intended to operate as a clear to fly system, stopping unwelcome passengers boarding the aircraft in the first place, and in order for it to operate as such there have to be direct links between the ESTA system and the airlines' systems. So whereas now you fill in the form and get an ESTA application number that the airline doesn't care tuppence about, in the future you'd probably add that number to your check-in data, and the airline would cross reference that with ESTA in order to establish that you were cleared to fly.

Presuming ESTA isn't currently ready to do that, and presuming it won't be on the 12th of January either, then the system that will continue to operate until it is will be the combination of PNR data and the green I-94W Visa Waiver form you fill in on the flight.

The ESTA form effectively duplicates much of the I-94W, including the questions about moral turpitude and Nazi Germany, and it is envisaged by the DHS that the ESTA data will replace the I-94W paper data "when [a passenger is] arriving on a carrier that is capable of receiving and validating messages pertaining to the traveler’s ESTA status as part of the traveler's boarding status. Travelers on carriers without this capability will still be required to complete the paper Form I-94W."

So in all probability the length of the "leeway" will be the time it takes the DHS to get the major airlines online. An ESTA number, incidentally, is good for multiple entries over two years, so no more I-94W tedium once it's properly live. But no doubt you'll still have to deal with the customs form. ®

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