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Switzerland to introduce flight passenger database

Passengers travel through Zurich Airport.
The Swiss database will automatically compare flight passenger data with that from police information systems. © Keystone / Christian Beutler

Switzerland plans to introduce a flight passenger database from 2026 to collect and process personal data in a bid to combat terrorism and serious crime. The government has sent a related bill to parliament.

Justice Minister Beat Jans told reporters on Wednesday that since the United States started collecting air passenger data after the 9/11 attacks on its territory, almost 70 countries around the world, including all 27 European Union member states, have exchanged such data via a national “Passenger Name Record” (PNR) system. This data is an effective tool in the fight against terrorism and serious crime, he said.

+ EU court ruling means Switzerland must overhaul flight passenger data law

Switzerland must comply with international requirements, but it does not yet have a legal basis to do so, Jans pointed out.

The flight passenger data includes information that travellers provide when making a reservation: first name, surname, contact details, itinerary and method of payment.

+ Switzerland wants to exchange air passenger data with the EU

If Switzerland does not follow suit, it could create a rift in Europe. People could circumvent the EU’s PNR systems by taking a flight to Switzerland and continuing their journey through the Schengen area by land.

In addition, more countries are threatening to impose heavy fines on Swiss airlines that fail to communicate PNR data or even to withdraw their landing rights.

The use of PNR is also a US condition to allow Switzerland to remain in its Visa Waiver Programme. This scheme allows Swiss nationals to travel to the US without a visa for business or tourism purposes for up to 90 days.

Special unit

A new unit, known as the Passenger Information Unit (PIU), specialised in processing PNR data and attached to the federal police will therefore be set up and active from 2026. Half of the staff will be seconded by the cantons, which will bear the costs.

The PIU will receive data from airlines 24-48 hours before the departure of a flight to or from Switzerland, and a second time just before departure.

The service will automatically compare the data with those from police information systems. If there is a match (for example, an individual reported for arrest on a passenger list), the result will be checked manually before being forwarded to the federal and cantonal authorities.

The categories of offence are detailed in the bill: terrorism, membership of a criminal organisation, trafficking in human beings, sexual exploitation of children or child pornography, arms trafficking, money laundering, cybercrime, intentional homicide, among others. Beat Jans noted that parliament could still examine this catalogue.

Information concerning sensitive personal data (for example, skin colour, trade union membership or dietary preferences, for example) will not be communicated, according to the government.

Data protection

The law guarantees the protection of passenger data, Jans insisted. Following criticism during the consultation, particularly from the left and the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, who feared massive surveillance, the government has strengthened the data protection aspects.

The period during which data can be stored has been reduced: data that does not indicate any terrorist offence or other serious criminal offence may not be stored for more than six months. This data will also be made anonymous after one month.

The exchange of PNR data is not a development of EU Schengen rules. Negotiations with the EU to conclude an agreement on the exchange of this data began in mid-March.

On Wednesday, the Federal Council also adopted a mandate for negotiations on a PNR agreement with non-EU countries such as Norway and the United Kingdom.

Adapted from French by DeepL/sb

This news story has been written and carefully fact-checked by an external editorial team. At SWI swissinfo.ch we select the most relevant news for an international audience and use automatic translation tools such as DeepL to translate it into English. Providing you with automatically translated news gives us the time to write more in-depth articles.

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