Can Larry Musarra get some frequent flier miles?

O'Malley At Large

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

On my way to Anchorage last weekend, I stripped off my coat, bracelets, rings, belt and shoes, but the airport metal detector went off anyway, so I padded over to the mat with the footprint outlines on it and spread my arms while an attendant gave me the pat-down. When the underwire in my bra made her magnetic wand beep, she explained she would have to do "a swoop," running her hand under each breast.

As I stood in a Plexiglas cube, being swooped in the presence of business travelers with their cell phones and rolling attachés, I thought of Larry Musarra, a man I wrote about last fall.

For nearly a year now, every time Musarra has tried to fly on Alaska Airlines, his last name sets off warnings in the airline's computer system that indicate he's on the FBI "no-fly" list. To get on the list, you have to be either a terrorist or a criminal, of which Musarra, a 47-year-old father of three, is neither.

You might know Musarra. He's lived here for years and used to fly helicopters for the Coast Guard. Now he's retired and works at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. When he and his wife Linné go to the airport, they leave several hours in advance, and expect to deal with puzzled airline attendants, long waits and exhaustive searches. They have given up wearing belts or any footwear that doesn't slip easily on and off.

It once took so long for airline employees to clear the Musarras, the couple had to be escorted on a plane with handwritten boarding passes. Their seats had already been filled with standby passengers. During the high school wrestling season, the Musarra's 15-year-old son Sungie had to be hand-searched, along with the entire Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling team, every time he went to meets. The process took hours.

Musarra has been convinced his name, which is Sicilian, was on the FBI list because it sounds Arabic, possibly like that of a terrorist.

When I wrote about Musarra, I called at least two dozen people at federal agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration, the FBI and the Department of Law, as well as Alaska Airlines. The officials pointed fingers at each other like a bunch of 14-year-olds in a stinky elevator. No one knew where the list came from, how Musarra got on it or how to get him off.

One spokesman at the FBI suggested maybe Musarra actually could have terrorist connections. A representative of the Transporation Security Administration showed up here at the Empire and told me that by writing about Musarra, I was helping people who are working against the United States government.

My article was picked up by The Associated Press wire service, and wound up in other newspapers. Larry had something of a public relations tour. The ACLU made him a guest at a fund-raiser. Wolf Blitzer interviewed him on CNN, and Connie Chung's producers called him. He was quoted in Mother Jones magazine, and Ann Davis, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, flew all the way out here to meet him. And she may have solved his problems.

Davis' story came out Tuesday morning (www.wsj.com). In it she details how Musarra is not actually on the FBI list. Instead, Alaska Airlines uses an outdated computer system that mistakenly matched his name with the name of a suspected terrorist because of a bad algorithm. Davis found other people, such as Barbara and Dennis Musante of California, who had the same problem - and the same first four letters in their name. Alaska Airlines has promised to get things straightened out.

Davis also discovered that while the system often flags the wrong name, it rarely flags the right one. The FBI told her few terrorists or criminals have been nabbed by it. According to Musarra, Davis also met someone in the information technology department at Alaska Airlines who he thinks may have cleared his name for good. Last time Musarra flew, which was a couple of weeks ago, he and Linné "just sailed through," he said.

I admire Musarra because throughout the whole mess, he's had a pretty good sense of humor. The thing that seemed to bug him the most was that he didn't get his frequent flier miles because he couldn't do Web check-in. If someone from Alaska Airlines is reading this, can you give Larry Musarra some miles? Really, it is the least you can do.

Anyway, while we are on the subject of airport security prowess, listen to what happened on my way back to Juneau last weekend.

When I handed my driver's license to the security attendant at a podium near the metal detectors, I asked him if I needed to keep my ID out to be checked again at the gate.

"No ma'am. We do just one good check," he said. He squinted first at me, then the license, then my boarding pass.

"We have been trained to give it one real thorough check here so they don't need to double-check it. You can put it right back in your wallet."

I thanked him and took my ID. He smiled at me and, with his very thorough check complete, said, "You have a great day, Wendy."

• Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.



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