What do Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and meeting professionals Mike Burke, CMP, and Dale Fisher, CMP, have in common? While none of them belongs to a terrorist organization, airline personnel have stopped each because their names are the same as, or similar to, names on terrorist watch lists.
Three years ago, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on airport watch lists, Kennedy startled listeners with his story of airport hassles. During the five weeks from March 1 to April 6, 2004, airline agents, on five separate occasions, attempted to block the senator from boarding airplanes. Even after Kennedy brought up the matter with then-Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, the senator was again stopped before boarding an airplane. It took several weeks before DHS cleared up Kennedy’s status.
DHS is still trying to clean up a watch list that has targeted hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent travelers. Responding to congressional and public pressure, the department last month implemented a new program to help clear air travelers who face the kind of misidentification issues that plagued the Massachusetts senator.
According to a report issued last year by the Government Accountability Office, while these “false positives,” occur relatively infrequently when one considers the millions of passengers who fly in and out of American airports annually, those who are misidentified as potential terrorists have to deal with airport security delays, extended questioning and searches, and the possibility of missed flights. Meeting professionals such as Burke and Fisher can testify to the frustration and inconvenience experienced by business travelers who face watch-list problems.
Burke, a former president of Financial and Insurance Conference Planners, and manager, conference and travel services, for the Hanover Insurance Group, Worcester, Mass., calls himself “one of the unfortunate targets of the TSA [Transportation Security Administration].” Burke has already completed what he believes is the necessary paperwork to sort out his watch-list situation, but “even after completing the requested paperwork and receiving acknowledgment from TSA that they had processed my screening information, I got stopped on my last U.S. Airways flight to Charleston.”
For Burke, the problem has gone past that of simple inconvenience. “When traveling back from Scottsdale last September, I had forgotten my wallet in my guest room and, because I was on the TSA watch list, I wasn’t able to clear security, missed an earlier flight, and had to wait for the hotel to bring me my wallet,” says Burke. “So yes, watch lists do impact the traveler.”
Dale Fisher, director of event operations for Network World, an information technology media company based in Southboro, Mass., has been successful in clearing up her watch-list status.
“I had to fill out a four-page form to clear myself, which involved obtaining a certified copy of my birth certificate from the state of Pennsylvania,” she says. “It was a hassle, but being able to use self-service machines again is worth it!”
Through the Department of Homeland Security’s new Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or TRIP, travelers can access a DHS Web site to try to resolve watch-list misidentification issues.
According to DSH, TRIP lets travelers relay their watch list concerns with a single request. The information is sent to DSH, which, in turn, shares it with the applicable agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of State, and, if appropriate, airport and airline operators.
“We’re making travel more efficient and secure by offering a convenient redress process,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “This is a win-win program. Eliminating false positives makes the travel experience more pleasant for legitimate visitors, and it frees up our front-line personnel to apply even greater scrutiny of those individuals who truly present safety and security risks.”
For information about TRIP, go to ww.dhs.gov/trip.