PLANNERS DEALING WITH international meetings are having their jobs complicated somewhat by changing passport rules and uncertainty about deadlines for implementing new passport technology.

Despite the fact that the United Kingdom and Japan — two of the biggest markets for foreign travel into the United States — will not be able to meet an October deadline for the issuance of biometric passports, indications are that Congress will not grant an extension. In addition, under proposed rules by the State Department, Americans for the first time will be required to show passports when they re-enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean by 2008.

In a March 31 letter to Franco Frattini, vice president of the European Commission, House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., said that the chance of Congress granting an extension to the biometric passport requirement “is unlikely.” Sensenbrenner was responding to a request by Frattini that Congress grant an extension until October 26, 2006, because several members of the European Union will not be able to begin biometric passport production before October 26 of this year.

Citizens from the 27 visa waiver countries can now enter the United States without a visa. Once the deadline passes, travelers from countries that have not started to produce biometric passports will have to obtain visas to travel to the United States once their current passports expire.

“This is like Groundhog Day,” says Rick Webster, director, government affairs, the Travel Industry Association of America. “We went through the same thing last year.”

Under the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, the 27 visa waiver countries were originally required to start issuing biometric passports by October 26, 2004. These passports are machine-readable with biometric identifiers containing information such as digital photographs. When it became clear that the vast majority of visa waiver countries could not meet the deadline, Congress extended the deadline to this October, despite calls for a two-year extension by the State Department and tourism and travel groups such as the TIA.

Sensenbrenner's stand on the biometric passport deadline is critical, says Webster, because “he is all-powerful on this issue.” But Webster hopes that Sensenbrenner can be convinced to agree to at least another six-month extension.

Since Japan and the U.K. will not meet the deadline, Congress may be unwilling, Webster predicts, to turn its back on two of the Bush Administration's strongest allies in the war on terrorism.

Congress may also have to deal with the specter of seeing the State Department being overwhelmed with visa applications if an extension is not granted. “The State Department is just not prepared to process those hundreds of thousands of visa applications,” Webster says.

In addition, Webster and the TIA are concerned that visa waiver countries will rush into biometric passport production before they get the technology right.

“The last thing that we need is having millions of passengers arriving here with biometric passports that fail.” Webster says. “We want biometrics, but we also want them to work right.”

In fact, one of the criticisms being leveled against the European Union is that it has been too ambitious in its approach to biometric technology. For example, the EU has added an optional fingerprint element that, Sensenbrenner told Frattini in an April 7 letter, adds a degree of “technical complexity” to the process that becomes the “engine of continuing delays.”

Pointing out that visa waiver countries such as Belgium are already producing viable biometric passports, Sensenbrenner wrote: “Some VWP countries have acted promptly to initiate the necessary processes, while others delayed. In my view, much expense and public consternation could have been avoided by a less technically ambitious approach, one that simply met the terms of the act as written.”

Get a Passport, eh?

In more passport news, The State Department recently announced the North American Travel Initiative, which requires all U.S. citizens, Canadians, citizens of the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda, and citizens of Mexico to have a passport or other accepted secure document to enter or re-enter the United States by January 1, 2008. This initiative comes out of the 9/11 Intelligence Bill that was signed into law in December.

The law's first phase will go into effect December 31, requiring all U.S. citizens traveling by air or sea to or from the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America, to have passports. The next phase, which will apply these rules to air and sea travel to or from Mexico and Canada, will begin a year later.

Webster foresees a potential negative effect on U.S.-bound Canadian travel, partly because only 40 percent of Canadians have passports. Webster also points out that since most Americans do not have passports, the initiative could have an effect on Americans looking to travel on cruise lines active in the Caribbean. “Conceptually we have no objection [to the initiative],” Webster says. “We're hoping that there will be sufficient lead time to educate and promote the need for passports.”