U.S., E.C. ESTA Disagreement Bodes Poorly

On the same day that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection trumpeted the success of the Electronic System of Travel Authorization, the European Commission's ambassador to the United States slammed the program. And these two sides are supposed to hammer out an all encompassing second-stage Open Skies agreement? Good luck. [more]
ESTA is an online process for foreign travelers to obtain approval for entering the United States. Established for residents of the 35 Visa Waiver Program countries, ESTA launched in August 2008 and became "mandatory" on Jan. 12 (though that terms appears to be used loosely). Once obtained, approvals are "generally" valid for two years, according to CBP. The goal is to "eventually replace the paper I-94W form filled out by travelers in flight."

CBP yesterday said that 8 million international travelers "have successfully applied to travel to the United States" under ESTA.

“We are pleased that this technology is proving very helpful to our Visa Waiver Program visitors,” said CBP assistant commissioner for field operations Thomas Winkowski. “ESTA adds a necessary layer of security for visa-free travel as well as for the travel industry.”

According to CPB, there is no cost to apply.

But something must have been lost in translation.

Ambassador John Bruton, head of the E.C. delegation to the United States, yesterday issued a statement regarding the Travel Promotion Act, now under consideration by Congress. The establishment of a "a nonprofit corporation to better communicate U.S. entry policies to international travelers and promote leisure, business and scholarly travel to the United States ... all sounds very reasonable," Bruton wrote. "But there’s a catch. While seeking to attract international visitors, the same legislation would also foot them with the bill to pay for this program. If passed, a fee of at least $10 would be assessed on foreign travelers. It would be a tax on tourists to encourage tourism--a questionable concept."

So how does this tie back to ESTA? According to Bruton, who cited the proposed Travel Promotion Act and the proposed Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill in the hands of the Senate after clearing the House of Representatives, that $10 fee "would be paid as part of a traveler's application for ESTA."

"The imposition of the fee is a change in the understanding under which ESTA was established as a security program by the U.S.," Bruton continued. "It was difficult to achieve consensus inside the European Union on meeting the data collection requirements of this U.S. system, but although consensus was achieved, ESTA remains unpopular in Europe. Charging a fee as well will not help matters."

"The European Commission would also have to re-examine if ESTA can be considered as a visa in disguise, with potentially negative implications on reciprocal visa-free travel between the European Union and the United States," Bruton cautioned. "Furthermore, we are concerned that with the establishment of this entrance tax by the Congress, there will be a demand for Americans to pay the same fees for travel to Europe, which could further depress transatlantic travel."

And make things just a little tense as negotiators for both sides try to work out the second phase of the Open Skies agreement, already seen as a tall order.