No-fly lists

No Fly List

The No Fly List, sometimes called the terrorist watch list, is a secret list created and maintained by the United States government of people who are not permitted to board a commercial aircraft for travel in the United States. It includes more than a million names. The list – along with the Secondary Security Screening Selection, which tags would-be passengers for extra inspection – was created after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The list has raised civil liberties and due process concerns, due in part to the potential for ethnic, religious, economic, political, or racial profiling and discrimination. It has also raised concerns about privacy and government secrecy, as well as drawing criticism from the media. The list has also been used to target political activists opposing the death penalty and Iraq war.


On September 11, 2001, the FBI had a list of 16 people deemed "no transport" because they "presented a specific known or suspected threat to aviation." The list had grown to more than 400 names by November 2001, when responsibility for keeping it was transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration.

In mid-December 2001, two lists were created: the "No Fly List" of 594 people to be denied air transport, and the "Selectee" list of 365 people who were to be more carefully searched at airports. By December 2002, the No Fly List held more than 1,000 names. 60 Minutes reported on 8 October 2006 that the news program had obtained a March 2006 copy of the list that contained 44,000 names. TSA officials said that, as of November 2005, 30,000 people in 2005 had complained that their names were matched to a name on the list via the name matching software used by airlines. In April 2007, the United States government "terrorist watch list" administered by the Terrorist Screening Center, which is managed principally by the FBI, contained 700,000 records. A year later, the ACLU revealed that the list was estimated to have grown to over 1,000,000 names and continues to expand.


Among the complaints about the No Fly List is the use of credit reports in calculating the risk score. In response to the controversy, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials said in 2005 that they would not use credit scores to determine passengers' risk score and that they would comply with all rights guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments.

The European Union and other non-U.S. government entities have expressed concern about allowing the CAPPS II proposal to be implemented within their borders. During the early testing of the No Fly List and CAPPS II, the TSA privately asked airlines to disclose massive amounts of private information about their passengers. This action was likely a violation of the Privacy Act of 1974, which forbids the government to compile secret databases on Americans. Spokespeople from several major airlines denied providing TSA the information, then admitted that they had done so. TSA and the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) admitted that the government had inappropriately requested and used this information.

In the midst of this controversy, the Government Accountability Office of the U.S. Congress produced a report critical of the CAPPS II system. It characterized the proposal as incomplete and seriously behind schedule, and noted that the TSA had failed to address "developmental, operational, and privacy issues identified by Congress". On July 14, 2004, TSA officials announced that CAPPS II was being pulled from consideration without proceeding to full testing. Critics have alleged that the TSA has merely chosen to start with a less controversial entry point that they are calling the "Registered Traveler" program. TSA has also begun testing of another program called "Secure Flight", which is supposed to solve some of the problems of CAPPS I while avoiding the privacy issues of CAPPS II.

False positives

A "false positive" occurs when a passenger who is not on the No Fly List has a name that matches or is similar to a name on the list. Such a passenger will not be allowed to board a flight unless he or she can differentiate himself from the actual person on the list – usually by showing a middle name or date of birth. In some cases, false positive passengers have been denied boarding or have missed flights because they could not easily prove that they were not the person on the No Fly List.

When an airline ticket is purchased, the reservation system uses software to compare the passenger's name against the No Fly List. If the name matches, or is similar to a name on the No Fly List, a restriction is placed in their reservation that prevents them from being issued a boarding pass until the airline has determined if they are the actual person whose name is on the No Fly List. Passengers are not told when a restriction has been placed on their reservation, and they normally do not find out that anything is unusual until they attempt to check in. "False positive" passengers cannot use Internet check-in or the automatic check-in kiosks in airports. Any attempt to use them will normally result in a message that the check-in cannot be completed and that the passenger needs to see a live check-in agent.

In order to be issued a boarding pass, a "false positive" passenger must present identification that sufficiently differentiates himself from the person on the No Fly List. This can include, but is not limited to, date and place of birth, middle name, citizenship, passport number, etc. Depending on the airline, this clearance can be done either electronically, with the check-in agent keying the information into the system, or a manual procedure where the agent telephones a centralized security office to obtain clearance. Once a "false positive" passenger has been cleared for a flight, the clearance will usually, but not always, apply to the remaining flights on that reservation, including the return. However, the next time this passenger purchases an airline ticket he will have to be cleared all over again. If a passenger's identification is insufficient to differentiate that passenger from a name on the No-Fly List, the airline will refuse to issue a boarding pass and tell the passenger to contact the TSA.

Policies vary from airline to airline as to whether a check-in agent will tell passengers why they must always have additional steps performed when they check-in, or why they are unable to check-in via Internet, kiosk, or at curbside. In some cases, check-in agents will incorrectly tell passengers that they must be cleared because they are "on the No Fly List", when in fact they are simply a "false positive". False positive passengers who are ultimately issued boarding passes are not on the No Fly List. In the majority of instances, passengers are not told anything, and it is only through the repeated experience of needing to be cleared or being unable to use curbside, Internet or automatic check-in that they come to suspect that they are a "false positive".

False positive passengers are at a disadvantage when traveling, due to the fact that their documents must be inspected by airline personnel before they can be issued a boarding pass. Because this permanently excludes them being able to use Internet, kiosk, or curbside check-in, they are, at best, required to appear at the airport earlier than they might normally have, because they must wait in line to be cleared. Some airlines provide a special counter for this purpose; others require the passenger to wait in the line for passengers with checked baggage, even if they have no baggage to check. At worst, passengers have actually missed flights because the flights were oversold and all of the available boarding passes were already claimed by other passengers who were able to check-in via the Internet, or because airline personnel could not contact the airline's security department to obtain a clearance, or because the passenger's identification didn't sufficiently differentiate them from a name on the No Fly List.

In an effort to reduce the number of false positives, DHS announced on April 28, 2008 that each airline will be permitted to create a system to verify and store a passenger's date of birth, to clear up watch list mis-identifications. Passengers can voluntarily provide this information to the airline, which would have to verified by presenting acceptable ID at the ticket counter. Once this data has been stored, travelers that were previously inconvenienced on every trip would be able to check-in online or at remote kiosks. It will be up to each individual airline to choose whether they wish to implement such a system.

False positives and other controversial cases

False positives and abuses that have been in the news include:

  • Numerous children (including many under the age of five, and some under the age of one) have generated false positives.
  • Daniel Brown, a United States Marine returning from Iraq, was prevented from boarding a flight home in April 2006 because his name matched one on the No Fly List. The rest of his company refused to leave the airport until Brown was allowed to board.
  • David Fathi, an attorney for the ACLU of Iranian descent and a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit.
  • Asif Iqbal, a management consultant and legal resident of the United States born in Pakistan, plans to sue the U.S. government because he is regularly detained when he tries to fly, because he has the same name as a former Guantanamo detainee. Iqbal's work requires a lot of travel, and, even though the Guantanamo detainee has been released, his name remains on the No Fly List, and Iqbal the software consultant experiences frequent, unpredictable delays and missed flights. He is pushing for a photo ID and birthdate matching system, in addition to the current system of checking names.
  • Robert J. Johnson, a surgeon and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, was told in 2006 that he was on the list, although he had had no problem in flying the month before. Johnson was running as a Democrat against U.S. Representative John McHugh, a Republican. Johnson wondered whether he was on the list because of his opposition to the Iraq War. He stated, "This could just be a government screw-up, but I don't know, and they won't tell me. Later, a 60 Minutes report brought together 12 men named Robert Johnson, all of whom had experienced problems in airports with being pulled aside and interrogated. The report suggested that the individual whose name was intended to be on the list was most likely the Robert Johnson who had been convicted of plotting to bomb a movie theater and a Hindu temple in Toronto.
  • In August 2004, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) told a Senate Judiciary Committee discussing the No Fly List that he had appeared on the list and had been repeatedly delayed at airports. He said it had taken him three weeks of appeals directly to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to have him removed from the list. Kennedy said he was eventually told that the name "T Kennedy" was added to the list because it was once used as an alias of a suspected terrorist. There are an estimated 7,000 American men whose legal names correspond to "T Kennedy". (Senator Kennedy, whose first name is Edward and for whom "Ted" is only a nickname, would not be one of them.) Recognizing that as a U.S. Senator he was in a privileged position of being able to contact Ridge, Kennedy said of "ordinary citizens": "How are they going to be able to get to be treated fairly and not have their rights abused? Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani pointed to this incident as an example for the necessity to "rethink aviation security" in an essay on homeland security published while he was seeking the Republican nomination for the 2008 presidential election.
  • U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), widely known for his civil rights advocacy, has been stopped many times.
  • Canadian journalist Patrick Martin has been frequently interrogated while travelling, because of a suspicious individual with the same name.
  • James Moore, an Emmy-winning television news correspondent, co-author of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential, political activist, and outspoken critic of the Bush administration, was placed on the No Fly List.
  • Walter F. Murphy, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, reported that the following exchange took place at Newark on 1 March 2007, where he was denied a boarding pass "because I [Professor Murphy] was on the Terrorist Watch list." The airline employee asked, "Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that." "I explained," said professor Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution." To which the airline employee responded, "That'll do it.
  • David Nelson, the actor best known for his role on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, is among various persons named David Nelson who have been stopped at airports because their name apparently appears on the list.
  • Jesselyn Radack, a former United States Department of Justice ethics adviser who argued that John Walker Lindh was entitled to an attorney, was placed on the No Fly List as part of what many believe to be a reprisal for her whistleblowing.
  • In September 2004, former pop singer Cat Stevens (who converted to Islam and changed his name to "Yusuf Islam" in 1978) was denied entry into the U.S. after his name was found on the list.
  • In February 2006, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) stated in a committee hearing that his wife Catherine had been subjected to questioning at an airport as to whether she was Cat Stevens due to the similarity of their names.
  • U.S. Representative Don Young (R-AK), the 3rd-most senior Republican in the House, was flagged in 2004 after he was mistaken for a "Donald Lee Young".
  • Some members of the Federal Air Marshal Service have been denied boarding on flights that they were assigned to protect because their names matched those of persons on the no-fly list.
  • Until July 2008, Nelson Mandela and other members of the African National Congress were on the list, something that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called "rather embarrassing". On July 5, 2008, the U.S. removed Mandela and the ANC from the list.
  • In August 2008, CNN reported that an airline captain and retired brigadier general for the United States Air Force has had numerous encounters with security officials when attempting to pilot his own plane.
  • After frequent harassment at airport terminals, a Canadian businessman changed his name to avoid being delayed every time he took a flight.
  • In October 2008 it was revealed that Maryland State Police classified 53 nonviolent political activists as terrorists and entered their names and personal information on the terrorist watch list. Protest groups were also entered as terrorist organizations. During a hearing it was revealed that these individuals and organizations had been placed on the list because of their opposition to the death penalty and Iraq war.

DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Process

The DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Process (TRIP) is a procedure for travelers who are delayed or denied boarding of an aircraft, consistently receive excess scrutiny at security checkpoints, or are denied entry to the U.S. because they are believed to be or are told that they are on a government watch list. The traveler must complete an online application at the Department of Homeland Security website, print and sign the application, and then submit it with copies of several identifying documents. After reviewing their records, DHS notifies the traveler that if any corrections of data about them were warranted, they will be made.

DHS TRIP may make it easier for an airline to confirm a traveler's identity. False-positive travelers, whose names match or are similar to the name of a person on the No Fly List, will continue to match that name even after using DHS TRIP, so it will not restore a traveler's ability to use Internet or curbside check-in or to use an automated kiosk. It does usually help the airline identify the traveler as not being the actual person on the No Fly List, after an airline agent has reviewed his identity documents at check-in.

The TSA's Office of Transportation Security Redress provides information about its redress procedure at

DHS TRIP is often accused of being defunct and existing only to appease civil rights organizations without having any actual effect.

ACLU lawsuit

On April 6, 2004 the American Civil Liberties Union "filed a nationwide class-action challenge to the government's No Fly List", in which they charge "many innocent travelers who pose no security risk whatsoever are discovering that their government considers them terrorists – and find that they have no way to find out why they are on the list, and no way to clear their names. The case was settled in 2006.

Other lawsuits

On August 18, 2008, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling on behalf of Rahinah Ibrahim, overturning a lower court decision and allowing her case against inclusion in the No Fly List to proceed through the court system.

No fly lists in other countries

The government of Canada has created its own no fly list as part of a program called Passenger Protect. The Canadian list incorporates data from domestic and foreign intelligence sources, including the U.S. No Fly List. It contains between 500 and 2,000 names.

Satirical responses

  • In the Simpsons episode "We're on the Road to D'ohwhere", it is revealed Bart is on the No Fly List. It is implied that this is because on a recent flight Bart removed his seat belt, in defiance of the captain's instruction.
  • In an episode of Boston Legal entitled "Nuts", lawyer Denny Crane is prohibited from flying to Hawaii because his name is on the no-fly list. Attorney Alan Shore wins the lawsuit by filling the courtroom audience with people named "Denny Crane" and arguing that America is capable of amazing technical innovation such as the iPod and should be able to develop a solution that does not result in so many false positives.

See also


External links

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