September 06, 2007

Flight Risks

Dave Johnson, proprietor of Seeing The Forest, is blogging from the Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum at the Carter Center this week. I'm looking forward to reading his commentary. You can read his first day impressions here. It's a wonderful read.

But this post isn't about what he's doing in Atlanta. This post is about what Dave had to deal with to get to Atlanta.

When Dave flew out to Atlanta yesterday, he's found that he is now one of the unfortunate people that shares a name with someone on one of the watch lists which means he can't check-in to flights online or use the kiosks and has to wait in line at the airport until someone is satisfied that he isn't the person that they are looking for. Dave describes the experience here:

When I finally got through the line to the check-in counter I was told that "Dave Johnson' is "on a list" now.

The inconvenience that Dave now must endure could last a long, long time. After all, the No-Fly List had some 44,000 names by 2006 and an additional 75,000 names are on a second list that the government feels needs special screening. 60 Minutes broadcast a piece on this bureaucratic nightmare in 2006 and updated it for their June 7, 2007 show. It turns out that bearing a popular name can be a real pain for people. 60 Minutes interviewed twelve people that shared a name of someone on one of the watch lists.

It also has created enormous frustration and aggravation for thousands of innocent travelers who have the misfortune of sharing a name with someone on the list and some of the names are among the most common in America. Like Gary Smith, John Williams or Robert Johnson. 60 Minutes found 12 of them and brought them to New York for an interview.

In New York, Kroft spoke to the group, all of them named Robert Johnson; all said they have trouble getting on airplanes.

They donít look like a very dangerous group. There is a politician, a soccer coach, businessmen, even a member of the military. Yet they say they are pulled aside and interrogated, sometimes for hours until someone at the Transportation Security Administration decides they are not the Robert Johnson on the No Fly List. And they say it happens nearly every time they go to the airport.

"Oh, at least Ė at least 15 to 20 times. At least," one of the Robert Johnsons tells Kroft.

"Probably for close to 100 segments, every time I would go to get onto an airplane, I would have to go through the process," another says.

"I had my military ID and you know, I go on military bases all the time," Robert Johnson says. "So I can get on any base in the country, but I can't fly on a plane, because I am on the No Fly List."

The Robert Johnson meant to be on the No Fly List would seem to be the known alias of a 62-year-old black man who was convicted of plotting to bomb a Hindu temple and a movie theatre in Toronto. After serving 12 years, he was deported to Trinidad. But the airlines ticket agents donít have any of that information on their computer screens. They just have the name, not even a date of birth.

"There's gotta be some common sense in there. Somebody behind that desk has to say, 'This isn't the guy they're looking for.' Come on," one remarks.

Asked what is the worst part of the experience, one of the Johnsons tells Kroft, "The humiliation factor. And, I get calls on my cell phone from my coworkers saying, 'You gonna make the flight? You gonna make the flight?' And, I'm sitting here in a panic sweatin' and, you know, to an extent he's thinking like 'Or, am I traveling with a criminal here?'"

One of the Robert Johnsons was even strip-searched. "I had to take off my pants, I had to take off my sneakers, then I had to take off my socks. I was treated like a criminal."

And there is not much they can do about it. Right now their only recourse is to apply to get on another list of people who shouldnít be on the list. Donna Bucella of the Terrorist Screening Center says the inconvenience is regrettable, but itís a price society and anyone named Robert Johnson has to pay for security.

"Well, Robert Johnson will never get off the list," Bucella states.

And she acknowledges that the inconvenience won't go away. "Well, they're gonna be inconvenienced every time they try to go to the kiosk or try to do a curbside check-in because they do have the name of a person who's a known or suspected terrorist," she says.

So what's the answer to this totally insane situation? If Dave's now on the list, how long will it take the a bunch more of us will be on it too? And how do you get on the list? Could it be that it came about because the Feds were spying on your calls?

One thing that might make force the government to change this insane policy of creating massive and totally unworkable lists would be for a whole slew of us to change our names to something like "Dave Johnson" in solidarity. What do you think?

Posted by Mary at September 6, 2007 12:57 AM | War on Terrorism | Technorati links |

I was thinking the other way 'round: maybe anyone with a common name should change it to something unique. One could just pick a made-up name, like, say, Herkermer Biffelwogg. Or maybe see if putting a sequence number on it would work: "Dave Johnson 3,141". For that matter, let's go all the way, and we'll all change our names to our social security numbers. It might be fun to go around as "314-15-9265"[1].

It's a good thing we live in the Land of the Free <cough!>, or else we might run into something like what Venezuela is doing, where we might all have to be called "Bruce".
[1] No, silly readers, it's not really my SSN....

Posted by: Barry Leiba at September 6, 2007 05:11 AM

I know a David Nelson whose name is on the list. He went through the same sort of hassles described in your post.

Posted by: Enterik at September 6, 2007 06:35 AM

That's one thing I'm glad I don't have to deal with. If my name (my real name) ever shows up on 'no fly' list it'll definitely be me and not someone else.

Posted by: snark at September 6, 2007 01:00 PM

ccokzblog:oussama staring in new video

Posted by: ccoaler at September 6, 2007 04:07 PM

By now I'm torn between believing this is a deliberate tactic to keep us in fear, or just another example of the staggering incompetence wrought in everything this administration touches.

Posted by: BruceJ at September 6, 2007 05:12 PM

BruceJ - Why has it got to be one or the other?

Posted by: natasha at September 6, 2007 07:50 PM

Hmmm. My name is pretty common, and I can't (usually) check in online or at a kiosk. But it rarely takes more than a few minutes to clear up, and all they have to see is my driver's license (the DOB doesn't match the naughty guy).

Some airlines can clear this at the check-in counter. Some have to go to a supervisor behind the scenes. But other than one time when the only JetBlue person authorized to clear people was on break, it really takes only a few minutes.

Now, perhaps my namesake isn't on the Really Naughty List, but only the Somewhat Naughty List, but really, it's not that big of a pain most of the time.

Posted by: Chard at September 6, 2007 11:13 PM


So now we know the rest of the story...

LOL!!! Actually I am relieved because I did notice the attention!

(Can you guess what the initials mean? They mean delay and good humor! You really have no choice if you wanna get to Hawaii! And why hurry if you are going to Texas?)

Posted by: RGJ/Dallas112263 at September 7, 2007 10:47 PM

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Posted by: Eva Maryam at September 8, 2007 01:15 AM