What's in a name? For some, a hassle

Fliers with monikers like those on terrorist watch list find travel plans often interrupted

June 11, 2006|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

Checking in at the airport for a business trip to Chicago last week, Michael Patrick O'Brien braced himself for a frustrating experience that has become all too routine.

Handing his driver's license and airline ticket to the agent at the check-in counter, he buried his forehead into his right palm and rolled his eyes in quiet resignation when the agent uttered the phrase that has come to haunt O'Brien: "I need to clear a no-fly."

A frequent flier who took about a dozen business trips in the past year, O'Brien, 37, of Hampstead has the misfortune of having a name that is identical to, or similar to, someone on the government's terrorist watch list.

Like thousands of other travelers with names that bear an unlucky resemblance to alleged security threats, O'Brien keeps getting flagged at the airport despite assurances that the problem has been resolved by the Transportation Security Administration, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

"TSA told me I was off the list," he told the ticket agent at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.

But in a response that sounded like a riddle, the agent said, "You proved you're not the person on the list, but that doesn't mean your name comes off."

He can't use the online check-in or express check-in at the airport's computerized kiosks, and he can't check in with the skycap.

His co-workers at the advertising and public relations firm in Owings Mills where he is an executive vice president cringe at the thought of his booking their group flights because it means they all must check in the old-fashioned way with a ticket agent.

"I've become a leper," he said.

Following the government's procedure, he filled out and mailed a Passenger Identity Verification Form with information to prove he was not the person on the list.

About two weeks after he mailed the form with the required three pieces of notarized identification, O'Brien eagerly opened a letter from TSA officials.

In part, it read: "Where it has been determined that a correction to records is warranted, these records have been modified to address any delay or denial of boarding that you may have experienced as a result of the watch list screening process."

It didn't help. Because airlines collect information about their passengers differently - one might include a middle initial, and another the whole middle name, for example - the computers automatically flag anyone with a name that resembles one on the watch list.

It is left up to the humiliated passenger, at the ticket gate, to provide proof of distinguishing information, such as age or address, that shows he or she is not the one on the list. This must be done with every flight.

The TSA, which is in charge of passenger security, is trying to fix the problem by developing a uniform program to screen for matches before travelers arrive at the airport. But its completion date is unknown.

The first time he was flagged by an airline because of his name, O'Brien was traveling with his wife and two children - ages 4 and 7 - to Jamaica in April 2005.

He tried to check in at a kiosk, but the computer directed him to a ticket agent for assistance.

"She said, `You're on the list.' I said, `What list?' And she said, `The watch list,'" O'Brien said. "The person behind me in line seemed pretty freaked out. It took half an hour to get me cleared."

The O'Briens were delayed so long that their seats were given away and the plane lacked enough adjacent ones for his family to sit together, he said.

"I'm willing to tolerate some inconvenience for the sake of security, but this doesn't seem very effective," O'Brien said last week before heading to the gate for his flight to Chicago. "The dragnet is catching nearly everyone, so how effective is that?"

The watch list was created in 1990, with a roster of people "determined to pose a direct threat to U.S. civil aviation," according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Web site.

EPIC, a public interest group that focuses on privacy and civil liberties issues, has been using Freedom of Information Act requests to demand information about the list.

But the TSA, citing national security, refuses to disclose the names or even the number of names on the list.

"If people know which names are on the list, it makes the list useless," said TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser.

Activists estimate the number of names on the list at 200,000 to 400,000.

It's no consolation to O'Brien that he is not actually on the no-fly list - which would mean he would be prohibited from flying. He's not even on the government's "selectee" list, which would require him to undergo "secondary screening," such as a pat-down, before he could be cleared to board an aircraft.

He just happens to have a name that in whole or in part matches a name on the watch list, which means he must show photo identification to a ticket agent each time he flies to confirm he is not the person on the list.

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