Late this past summer, the U.S. government announced the temporary suspension of two programs that allowed certain international air passengers to travel through U. S. airports for brief stopovers or to change planes on their way to other countries without first obtaining visas. They were known as the Transit Without Visa program and the International-to-International transit program (TWOV and ITI respectively).

Based on intelligence reports (“specific credible threats”) indicating that terrorist groups were planning to exploit these transit programs to get access to the United States or its airspace, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge defended his move saying that such measures “are necessary in order to protect lives and property.”

Granted, each nation must take security measures to protect its own people and its legitimate interests. But, in this case, will these measures really be effective, or will they simply produce unnecessary inconvenience, higher costs and deeper resentment? Will the U.S. be safer after imposing these requirements or will this just divert tourist revenues to other countries? Finally, will the U.S. continue focusing on the effects rather than on the causes of the terrorist attacks?

The U.S. airlines suffered severe losses following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C., compounding the effects of an already weak economy. American Airlines, which ranks number one among all airlines using U.S. airports to transit between foreign countries, lost about $5.3 billion during the past two years, and more than $1.04 billion in the first quarter of 2003 alone. In the second quarter, its losses were reduced to $75 million, but that included a cash payment from the U.S. government (that is to say, from the taxpayers) of $358 million as a federal subsidy.

In addition to these factors, the new transit measures could end up harming domestic airlines even more. According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), during the past 14 months more than 300,000 foreign passengers were transited through U.S. airports by the six biggest U.S. airlines under the two programs currently suspended, representing revenues of more than $130 million.

The average cost of a visa is about $100. Under one program, most of the passengers transiting the U.S. were from Brazil, Mexico, Korea, the Philippines and Peru. Given the low average income in those countries, the impact of the new regulations could be significant. Certainly it could be argued that passengers making international flights are generally well-to-do, and, therefore, the cost of the visa is of little significance. This reasoning ignores the economics at work here--and how quickly markets may take account of increased costs and adjust for them, even among the affluent. Already many people have switched to using airports in Canada and Mexico to change planes or for stopovers. But there are people who must travel for study, or to work, for medical reasons or for other urgent purposes who cannot use alternate airports outside the U.S.

The new measures impose not just monetary burdens--but they also require added time and impose bureaucratic complications. A “face-to-face” interview between the prospective traveler and a U.S. consular official is now required, and many people have to make long and expensive trips within their own countries to personally meet with consular representatives--sometimes standing in lines for hours for just a one-minute interview. (Ironically, the U.S. government is now spending about $50 million of its taxpayers’ money each year to promote tourism overseas, but these new requirements only discourage it--and possibly engender greater bitterness and resentment towards the United States.)

We should remember that the terrorists who took part in the 9/11 attacks in fact had visas--and they were legally allowed into the country.

Moreover, history tells us that the implementation of every regulation eventually leads to new bureaucracies and broader measures. Consider this: someday, similar government requirements may be proposed for air carriers in Canada and Mexico, given the not unlikely prospect of terrorists hijacking airplanes and diverting them towards U.S. soil.

It may be time at last for the Bush administration to consider the real origins of the terrorist aggression against the U.S.--and to acknowledge that intruding in other nations’ internal affairs, trying to create and re-create nations near and far while impeding free transit for innocent foreign travelers, does nothing more than stir up more trouble. Requiring these unnecessary new transit visas sounds to me like a truly low-flying idea.