I doubt that many people would see my fifteen-year-old son, Nick, as a threat to national security. Granted, he's a pretty big guy -- just over six feet tall -- and he's taken karate classes since elementary school. But he's also soft-spoken and studious. And while he's recently developed an interest in politics, reading Molly Ivins books and "Doonesbury" compilations is about as controversial as he gets.
So why in hell did security concerns nearly prevent Nick, and the rest of our family, from flying on two different commercial airliners over an eight-day span? The reasons are complicated and confusing, like so much of post-9/11 life, but ultimately, the fault lies with his mother and me. Turns out we gave him the wrong name.
Our tale began when I stumbled upon some cheap fares to Washington, D.C. Given Nick's interest in American history, and his ambition to someday attend the University of Mary Washington in nearby Fredericksburg, Virginia, we decided to visit the city for a summer vacation. My wife, Deb, booked tickets for her, me, our eleven-year-old daughters Lora and Ellie, and Nick, who she registered under his formal name, Nicholas. We were slated to depart from Denver International Airport early June 23, flying on Continental to Reagan National Airport. For our return trip, scheduled to begin the afternoon of July 1, we switched to Delta.
On the 23rd, we arrived at DIA a full two hours early, and it's lucky we did: The automated kiosks Continental provides to allegedly speed the check-in process stopped cold near the end of our process, telling us to approach the ticketing counter. There, a Continental agent asked to see photo identification. Deb and I submitted ours, and even though folks younger than eighteen aren't generally required to do so, Nick handed over his learner's permit. After my and Deb's monikers failed to score hits on his computer system, the agent entered Nick's info, and up went a warning flag. He cheerfully told us that Nick's name was on a persons-of-interest list in Continental's database. As a result, he had to phone someone (he wouldn't say who) to get clearance for us to board. After sitting on hold for between five and ten minutes, the agent told the person who picked up the line that Nick was a teenager traveling with his family. A few keystrokes later, we were informed that we could take to the skies, and we arrived at Reagan without further incident.
At our vacation's end, we returned to Reagan, and when we saw the same computer kiosks that had rejected us in Denver, we went straight to the Delta counter. Sure enough, Nick's name once again brought our check-in to an immediate halt, prompting the woman working with us to phone a mysterious office that kept her on hold for an agonizing thirty minutes or so. The delay bored my daughters to tears, but it gave Deb and me plenty of chances to ask the Delta employee what was going on. She acknowledged that such incidents happen more frequently than anyone would like. Some weeks, no security stops take place at the counter, she said, but during others, false positives might crop up two or three times. She deflected most other questions, however. In her opinion, the Continental rep in Denver shouldn't even have told us that Nick's name was the source of the difficulties.
Ours was not to wonder why. Ours was but to wait to fly. And wait. And wait.
Back in Denver, I phoned Continental spokesman Dave Messing, who was as polite as he was reluctant to spill any details. "I can't really comment on our security procedures," he maintained, adding that he couldn't quantify the frequency of stories like ours "other than to say they're a rarity." I guess he and the woman from Delta have different criteria.
Although DIA-based Mike Fierberg, the Transportation Security Administration's public affairs manager for the Rocky Mountain region, wasn't comfortable getting specific, either, he did offer plenty of context. He pointed out that because Reagan National is so close to major sites in Washington, D.C., extra security rules are in place, including a dictate that passengers must remain in their seats for the first and last thirty minutes of flights. The additional measures might explain why we were also stopped on a Frontier Airlines trip to Orlando last December, when all five of us, including Nick, made it through check-in but were then pulled out of the regular screening line and given full-scale searches both going to and leaving Florida. That might have been a coincidence, Fierberg said, but he didn't sound certain.
Whatever the case, Fierberg assumed that Nick's name triggered the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System. "The system was developed by the airlines in the '90s," he said. "They interface with the TSA to get lists of known people who are not allowed to fly, but it's still effectively operated by the airlines, and each airline does things its own way. Different airlines use different computer algorithms to screen their databases."
Carriers also take individual approaches when a worrisome name surfaces. "Some airlines have a policy that whenever a name comes up, they call law enforcement. Nothing happens until an officer gives his okay," Fierberg said. "Other airlines will call internal security people, and some might call the FBI. The bottom line is, they're responsible for clearing the name, not us. We'll give them all the information we can, but it's their decision. That's why it's so inconsistent."
In Fierberg's view, a better solution is CAPPS II, a revised system that's been in development for several years and would be overseen by the TSA, not the airlines. But CAPPS II remains a non-starter because of privacy concerns. The feds have dropped the idea of asking all potential passengers for a Social Security number, but they still want access to a range of other figures, including those of the financial variety. "If you have a King Soopers card, a publicly available database will show that you've had one since 1998, or whenever," Fierberg says. "We don't give a damn what kind of dog food you buy. We just want to verify that there are a certain number of listings in public databases."
This kind of sniffing around disturbs groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a class-action lawsuit against the TSA in regard to CAPPS II. Opposition to the program is so fervent that Fierberg doesn't know when, or even if, CAPPS II will become a reality, but he said, "We're working hard to strike that difficult but important balance between security and liberty."
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At present, Nick is stranded between these two objectives, and there's little we can do about it. The Delta staffer at Reagan National said we might prevent a recurrence of our recent troubles by purchasing airlines tickets for him under his first initial and middle name: N. Charles Roberts. "That might work," Fierberg says. "And it might not." There's also a TSA program that issues a document on agency letterhead to people who furnish enough personal information to prove that they're not a danger to the community at large. Still, Fierberg admits that "it's up to the airlines as to whether they'll honor it. Some airlines will, but some airlines may say, 'This piece of paper doesn't mean jack to me.'"
Neither Fierberg nor Continental spokesman Messing would speculate as to why Nick was targeted, but a quick online search unearthed a likely explanation: In October 2001, one Nicholas Roberts, a fifty-year-old unemployed Welshman, was charged with sending packages containing a suspicious white powder to two acquaintances, a travel writer and the First Minister of Wales; the substance in question was flour. Roberts, who'd previously appeared on the cops' radar after hurling eggs at the Queen of England's motorcade in Cardiff, was sentenced to two and a half years in stir back in July 2002. The length of the sentence probably means that this "crank," as one British tabloid dubbed him, can't jet to the U.S., but his influence lingers. Call it flour power.
When I told Nick that he may be inconvenienced at airports for years to come because he shares a name with a British anthrax hoaxer, he laughed. That reaction didn't seem very threatening to me, but who am I to judge?