Are These Kids Terrorists?
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux
Eight-year-old Mikey Hicks from New Jersey had his first airport pat down at the age of two and has been dealing with extra airport drama ever since. Sarah Zapolsky's 11-month-old was earmarked for special attention at Dulles. Five-year-old Sam Adams was stopped from boarding a flight in San Diego in 2006. John Anderson of Minnesota found out he was on "a list" when he was three years old. Ingrid Sanden's 23-month-old baby set off security flags at Phoenix Sky Harbor in 2005.
Those incidents happened despite the Transportation Security Administrations' assertions that there are no children on the Selectee Watch List or its more serious companion, the No Fly List, that are compiled by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center and provided to the TSA for enforcement. The problem stems from the fact that the current lists do not specify gender or date of birth. The agency instructs airlines not to deny boarding to children up to the age of 12, or select them for extra security checks, even if their names match those on a list. But amid parental cries for common sense, it still happens. The TSA states that "Airlines can and should automatically de-select any 8-year-olds out there that appear to be on a watch list." But "de-selecting" isn't always easy. It takes time, multiple phone calls, and intervention by supervisors, and it causes travel delays, not to mention stress for both the kids and the parents.
Najlah Feanny Hicks is all too familiar with such travel stress. Her 8-year-old son Mikey has been faced with aggressive pat downs, difficulty obtaining boarding cards, and lost seat assignments for the past six years. His boarding card is also regularly stamped with "SSSS" (code for Secondary Security Screening Selection). "Mikey couldn't check in online, we always had to talk to a supervisor at the ticket counter who had to override things in the computer to get him a seat," says Feanny Hicks. Ironically, his father, also named Michael Hicks, only received his first additional security screening in January 2010.
When Peter Mosher of Worcester, Massachusetts, was printing out boarding cards for the family spring break vacation to the Grand Canyon in April 2010, he wasn't able to print one for his 6-year-old daughter, Allison. The United agent who answered the concerned parent's call informed Mosher that Allison's name was on a "No Fly List." The software engineer was "flabbergasted." Calls to United and the TSA couldn't clear things up. It took the assistance of Senator Scott Brown and several extra hours at the airport to get the whole family on their early morning flight out of Logan. The fact that a boarding card was issued meant that Allison's match was not with a name on the No Fly List, but for one on the Selectee Watch List. Lauren Gaches, spokesperson for the TSA, states, "It is important to note, that if a passenger successfully obtains a boarding pass, his or her name is not on the No-Fly list."
Credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images
The TSA's "Secure Flight Program" should help-for those without an unlucky age and gender match, at least. Unveiled in 2008, with the aim of being operational on all airlines by the end of 2010, Secure Flight matches passenger information provided by airlines with government-maintained watch list records to verify potential matches. Passengers will be asked for their name, date of birth, and gender as it appears on government ID. Early estimates indicate that under Secure Flight, in excess of 99 percent of passengers who provide this information will be able to check in online or at kiosks, according to Gaches. The TSA also provides forms for getting off the list. "Like all passengers, parents can apply for redress with the DHS TRIP redress program if they feel that their child has been misidentified as a No Fly or Selectee," says Gaches.
What else can a parent do if they find their child's name is a false positive for one on the No Fly or Selectee Watch Lists? Some families, like the Andersons, give up air travel entirely and set up a website [www.letjohnfly.com] to draw attention to their efforts. Others travel via Canada whenever they can. The Hicks didn't take the fact that Mikey's name was on the list laying down. "We contacted our congressman numerous times, who then contacted the TSA" says Feanny Hicks. "We then filled out the redress application for both my husband and my son." But things didn't start to right themselves until they went to the press. "To be honest, we've been at this for years and it's not until the New York Times wrote their front page story about Mikey and embarrassed the TSA did they do anything to help," says Feanny Hicks. "The day the story ran someone from the TSA called to help us." And the Hicks didn't stop there. They set up a website [www.getmikeyoffthelist.com] detailing their struggle to get their son's name cleared, started a Facebook page to rally support and encourage people to post on the TSA's blog, send the agency emails and letters, and contact their representatives in Congress. Thankfully all their hard work is paying off. "The last time we traveled, which was about a month ago, we had no problems," says Feanny Hicks. It took six years, a Congressman, and an internet blitz, but this 8-year-old has finally been cleared for take-off.