There's no getting off that no-fly list

Unintended targets include Congressmen and babies. And even getting on the "cleared list" won't clear up all the problems.

3 min read
Sarah Zapolsky was checking in for a flight to Italy when she discovered that her 9-month-old son's name was on the United States' "no fly" list of suspected terrorists.

"We pointed down to the stroller, and he sat there and gurgled," Zapolsky said, recalling the July incident at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. "The desk agent started laughing...She couldn't print us out a boarding pass because he's on the no-fly list."

Zapolsky, who did not want her son's name made public, said she was initially amused by the mix-up. "But when I found out you can't actually get off the list, I started to get a bit annoyed."

She isn't alone.

According to the Transportation Security Administration, more than 28,000 people have applied to the TSA redress office to get on the "cleared list," which takes note of individuals whose names are similar to those on the terrorism watch list, but even getting on that list does not guarantee an end to hassles related to the no-fly list.

The TSA does not reveal how many or which names are actually on the list, and complaints do not get names removed, since those names are also those of suspected terrorists. The best that innocent travelers can hope for is a letter from the TSA that it says should facilitate travel but is no panacea.

In addition to babies, the victims of mistaken identity on the no-fly list have included aging retirees and public figures such as Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska and Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.

"It's a significant problem," said Brenda Jones, the spokeswoman for Rep. Lewis, who travels by plane at least twice a week. She said the congressman had written to the TSA, but "he is still on the no-fly list, and the problems persist."

Secretive list
The classified no-fly list was adopted after the hijacked-plane attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in an effort to prevent suspected terrorists from getting on aircraft or coming to the United States. Airlines must check passenger names against the list before allowing them to get on a plane.

While the number of suspected terrorists on the list is unknown, aviation sources estimate that it includes tens of thousands of names, if not more.

TSA spokesman Christopher White said the agency has seven people working full-time on processing applications to get on the cleared list. Considering the number of applications, that works out to less than 4,000 complaints per redress officer.

"We do take the cleared list very seriously, and it's also important for us to focus on the right people. It does us no good to focus on the wrong John Doe," White said.

Cleared individuals receive a letter from the TSA saying, "we have provided sufficient personal information to the airlines to distinguish you from other individuals" but cautions that "TSA cannot ensure that your travel will be delay-free."

John Graham, a 63-year-old former Department of State official, said his TSA letter had not helped at all.

"I'm at a point now where I don't really care whether my name is on the list as a mistake, as mistaken identity or whether someone at TSA does intend to hassle me. The fact is, there's a total absence of due process," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls the no-fly list system unconstitutional, saying it treats people as guilty without a trial and unfairly deprives them of freedoms. It also says the system is an inaccurate and ineffective security method.

Despite efforts by the TSA to address complaints and concerns about the no-fly list, ACLU attorney Reggie Shuford said very little had changed to improve the process.

"We continually hear from people being caught up on the no-fly list with the same frustrating experiences and inability to get off the list," he said.

Peter Johnson, a retired bibliographer at Princeton University, said travel became "hellish" after he discovered his name was on the no-fly list in August 2004.

"I'm not sure if what's behind this is an effort to simply control people or if it's largely mismanagement and poorly conceptualized programming," Johnson said, adding that a TSA official had told him that there were more than 2,000 other Peter Johnsons in the United States who reported similar problems.