Is the No-Fly List Working?
Accused would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad may have left behind too many clues to get away with his crime. But that's not to say he didn't almost get away.
After giving the agents that had been trailing him the slip, Shahzad was able to board an Emirates flight at John F. Kennedy Airport and was about to depart for Dubai when federal agents boarded and removed him from the plane, taking him into custody as part of the bombing plot investigation.
He was able to board the flight despite the fact that some eight hours before the FBI had added him to the government's No-Fly List -- an aviation security procedure meant to keep terrorists off planes. Electronic messages had been sent to all the airlines to check their manifests. But in the hours after Shahzad's passport number had been added to the No-Fly list, the suspect managed to purchase a one-way ticket to Islamabad (he paid cash at the airport) and board the plane.
Who is to blame?
"In (Shahzad's) case, the airline seemingly didn't check the name, and the suspect was allowed to purchase a ticket and obtain a boarding pass," an administration official said. An official statement from the accused airline was more vague: "Emirates is in full compliance with all passenger check-in procedures in the U.S. and works closely with both the Transport Security Administration (TSA) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies to update security watch lists on a regular and timely basis."
As a rule, every person who makes an airline reservation is checked against the TSA's No-Fly list within 72 hours of departure. Previously, TSA policy maintained that in the case of a new name being added to the list, it was the responsibility of airlines to check passenger manifests within 24 hours of being notified of the addition. But after Monday's close call, that window of time has been drastically shortened. Under the new measures, airlines are required to re-check their manifests within two hours of being notified of a special circumstance, expedited No-Fly name.
Experts say that the new rules will have no effect on the travel process for the flying public.
"We work closely with the TSA and passengers won't notice a difference when they are flying, it won't impact our operation," says Brandy King, a spokesperson with Southwest Airlines.
Unless a passenger happens to share a name with someone on the No-Fly list, of course. Cases of mistaken identity or "false matches" to names on the No-Fly list happen (even to children), to which King says "we have procedures in place, we have a really good relationships working with the TSA on the No-Fly list. And (in cases of mistaken identity), we rectify that situation so it doesn't happen next time he or she travels."
Passengers aren't the only ones who've had false matches. "We actually have pilots whose name matches someone on the No-Fly list, so they have trouble when they go through," says Captain Karen Kahn, a longtime pilot with a US legacy carrier, "The ability to update very quickly is something we wish was there, but sometimes the automated systems don't work as well as we want them to."
The TSA is hoping to smooth glitches with the new Secure Flight program -- a system by which the "TSA will conduct uniform prescreening of passenger information against federal government watchlists," according to an official statement. "The TSA is taking over this responsibility from the airlines."
The TSA says the Secure Flight system will be in effect for all domestic flights by mid-2010 and all international flights by the end of 2010, at which time the latest two-hour notification rule will become moot (since the airlines will no longer be responsible).
Meanwhile, in the case of Shahzad, Kahn says it's important to remember that the current system -- for all its perceived faults related to his near escape -- ultimately did what it was meant to do.
"He didn't show up on board with a gun or knife. He showed up with his person so he could flee and go home," says Kahn, adding that Shahzad was not a threat to passengers, "His damage was already done in a whole different arena."
Indeed, no prohibited items were found on Shahzad. And ultimately, he was nabbed.
Kahn's advice to passengers concerned with a false match interrupting their travel plans is straightforward: "Buy a roundtrip ticket, don't pay cash for it since they want to be able to trace it, and obviously go (to the airport) early to deal with any unforeseen events."