Why is Switzerland going to collect a database of flight passengers?

Michael Stuchbery
Michael Stuchbery - [email protected]
Why is Switzerland going to collect a database of flight passengers?
A Swissair flight lands at Geneva Airport on January 23rd, 2024. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Twenty years after the US began sharing a database of those flying in and out of the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Switzerland is set to follow suit - but not without some outside pressure.


Passenger Name Record (PNR) systems are databases that operate by flagging and tracking individuals who may pose a security risk. 

The data includes the name, destination, means of payment, and type of baggage for each passenger arriving or leaving a country via its airports. 

Until now, Switzerland has not participated in a PNR system in a way that allows data to be freely accessible to partners such as the EU and the US. 

Indeed, for years, it has been possible to circumvent the EU's PNR systems by flying into Switzerland and crossing a land border with the EU. 

Now, however, Switzerland is being forced to comply. 

The United States has threatened Switzerland's place in their Visa Waiver Program unless they share data. 

Similarly, the EU has applied significant diplomatic pressure to join their efforts - and considerable progress has already occurred, with agreements signed

Other countries have also signalled that Swiss carriers may withdraw their landing rights or impose heavy fines if Switzerland does not begin participating in a compliant PNR system. 


Changes in effect 2026

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Beat Jans announced at a press conference that a PNR program that worked in collaboration with other countries would come into effect in 2026. 

The reason given for the length of time it would take to go into effect was that a legal basis for the move does not yet exist in Swiss law—a dispatch on proposed legislation has only just been sent to the Federal Council.

Once passed by the Federal Council and then by the Council of States, the federal police will be responsible for tracking passengers via a new group - the Passenger Information Unit (PIU). 

The PIU will examine passenger manifests a day before and immediately before flights taking off or landing and compare them to shared lists of individuals involved in terrorism, organised crime, or who have committed violent crimes. 

If there is a match, information will be forwarded to authorities at the relevant airport.  


Privacy concerns 

Understandably, for the privacy-conscious Swiss, concerns have been raised. 

Both the right-wing SVP, the Greens and the SPD have voiced doubts about the security and privacy of passenger data. 

In response, the government has announced that all passenger data except for that relates to those linked to terrorist groups will be deleted after six months. 

To further ease concerns, Switzerland's PNR system will be constantly monitored by the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act.



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