David Nelson, 30, is not a potential terrorist or fugitive, but when he flies on Alaska Airlines, company computers identify him as a suspicious character.
Since soon after Sept. 11, 2001, the Juneau retail manager has been unable to check in on the Web or use an electronic ticket. At airport counters from Juneau to Los Angeles, Nelson has seen attendants knit their brows while looking at his passenger record.
A similar routine unfolds each time: Attendants summon managers who may tell Nelson his name is on a government list of possible threats to airline security. Local police officers or federal Transportation Security Administration employees question and search him repeatedly. More than once, he nearly missed his flight.
"Between the counter and the plane, I've been searched four times," he said. "The guy who was searching me could see the guy who searched me before."
According to the results of an investigation published in April by the Wall Street Journal, Nelson may be among a group of airline passengers who are being mistaken for security threats by outdated airline computer systems.
Since shortly after Sept. 11, airlines were mandated to screen passengers using a "No Fly" list provided to them by the TSA. According to the Wall Street Journal, the name-matching technology most airlines use is decades old and not well suited for the task, resulting in a number of "false positives."
The list provided by the TSA also lacks other important information, such as physical characteristics, which help to identify possible threats. Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski tentatively has scheduled a meeting for Thursday with TSA officials to address "No Fly" list issues.
Evidence suggests the problem may be more common at Alaska Airlines ticket counters and that Juneau's Nelson is not alone.
Checking David Nelsons
Last fall, David Nelson, 44, a firefighter from Fairbanks, couldn't use his electronic ticket at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. Before he could receive a boarding pass he was detained and searched by police. Airline personnel told him his name appeared on a government list.
A third Alaska David Nelson, 30, a mechanic from Craig, was stopped in Ketchikan on the way to Anchorage last year and told by the airline he was on a government list. His 9-year-old cousin, also named David Nelson, was detained, searched and questioned by police in Ketchikan on the way to a family vacation last summer.
"They had to call the police down to verify that he was only a little boy," said the youngest Nelson's mother Tina Nelson. "It should have been pretty clear that he is only 9."
In January, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group called the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information suit against the TSA and was able to uncover 80 complaints from people mistaken for "No Fly" list threats.
Of the 80, 25 were from Alaska Airlines passengers, the most from any airline.
"We don't know if this is a trend. It also is possible that people in Alaska fly a lot more," said Mihir Kshirsagar, a policy analyst for Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Walsh would say little about the screening practices, "due to the sensitive nature of security issues."
"We have been working very hard to do anything that we can. On our part there are certainly many things beyond our control," he said.
Walsh would not specify how many people have complained to the airline about being flagged mistakenly. Such complaints don't all go to the same department, he said.
An investigation undertaken last September by the Oakland-based Alameda Newspaper Group uncovered four more innocent David Nelsons who police stopped and searched at the Oakland airport: a 56-year-old financier, his 22-year-old son, a 46-year-old unrelated truck driver and another unrelated 38-year-old man.
Though the screening practice may flag the wrong person, the FBI said it snags relatively few real security threats. If a real suspect attempted to board a plane, it is uncertain whether the current screening practices would flag him or her successfully, the FBI told the Wall Street Journal.
The airlines are in a difficult position because they are required to screen, but to do so more efficiently would require costly computer upgrades the already-strapped industry isn't willing to pay for, according to the Wall Street Journal. The TSA has said it will take over the computer screening eventually, and is in the process of developing a new computer system, called Computer-Aided Passenger Pre-Screening II, or CAPPS II.
CAPPS II would allow the TSA to search government and commercial databases when a passenger books a flight. Under the program, airline passengers will be required to provide their full name plus address, phone number and date of birth. With that information, the computer reservation system would perform a background check on the traveler that could include a credit and banking history as well as criminal records. Civil liberties groups object to the proposed program, saying it would allow the government to invade privacy and result in more false positives.
The TSA also responded to the Wall Street Journal investigation by promising to circulate a "Fly List" of innocent but often flagged passengers.
"There are a number of individuals who are spending more time than we would consider appropriate checking in, but they are not necessarily individuals who are in need of any additional security screening," said Brian Turmail, a spokesman with the TSA in Washington, D.C. "We will create a second list of individuals who have this happen to them and share that with the airlines. There will be information sent that, 'this individual should immediately receive their boarding pass.' "
Turmail was unable to say when the new computer system or the Fly List plan will be implemented in Juneau. He directed David Nelsons to call the TSA 800 number. Kathy Mathews, stakeholder liaison for the TSA in Juneau, said she had not yet heard of any Fly List directive from Washington, D.C.
'Enough is Enough'
In the mean time, the Alaska Nelsons have found themselves in a bureaucratic labyrinth. After he realized he was flagged in the computer system, Juneau's Nelson complained to the TSA and Alaska Airlines with calls and e-mails, but he never received more than a form letter in response from the airline.
"With both the TSA and Alaska Air, it seemed like they purposely put people who can't answer your question in front of you," Nelson said.
Nelson from Fairbanks also tried calling the airline, and was told to call the airport before he flies.
"I called ahead, but I still had the same problem," he said. "Enough is enough."
Fairbanks Nelson's calls to the TSA's 800-number landed him on hold, and then in a maze of voice mail. No one called him back, he said.
The Nelsons' situations are complicated by an unclear relationship between the airline and the TSA that makes it difficult to know who to call to get a name cleared. When the men were searched after they came up as threats in the computer system, Alaska Airlines employees told them they were required by the TSA to have suspicious passengers searched by police. The men never knew whether there names were actually on a list.
The TSA maintains mistakenly flagged individuals are not on a government watch list, but are victims of inefficient airline technology. Mathews, of the TSA's Juneau office, said Alaska Airlines is not following a TSA procedure when it calls law enforcement officers to perform a search.
"If (passengers) are at the ticket counter and the police are called, that is Alaska Airlines. If they are calling the police, they are not following the proper procedures for clearing a passenger," Mathews said, adding there is a system set up to clear passengers and that the problem could be a training issue for Alaska Airlines.
"This is just my personal opinion: If Alaska Airlines chose to upgrade their computer system, there might not be so many people being flagged and having to be cleared," Mathews said.
'Benefits outweigh inconvenience'
Walsh, the spokesman for Alaska Airlines, said that for security reasons he was unable to comment on the airline's procedure when dealing with a possible "No Fly" list match. He would not confirm the airline makes a practice of calling law enforcement when "No Fly" matches appear.
"From what we can tell, we are beginning to receive fewer false positives than in the past," Walsh said, although he couldn't say what empirical evidence the airline had to support that claim.
Though apologetic, Walsh had little specific advice for passengers such as the David Nelsons.
"Right now there is not a lot set up for that," Walsh said. "If you know that you are likely to get flagged, get there in plenty of time. We are working on doing everything we can to reduce the number of people who are inconvenienced."
Many airlines, including Alaska, employ a computer reservation system designed by Sabre Holdings Corp., based on a system designed for American Airlines in the 1960s. Walsh said he didn't know the age of Alaska Airlines' system.
Though the specifics of the system are secret, the Wall Street Journal reported the airline computers use a technique created to "cast a wide net" to find passengers based on multiple spellings of their last names. When searching for potential watch list members, the system matches last names or parts of names, without screening for other identifying characteristics or frequent flier status.
Such are the cases of Larry Musarra, another Juneau man, and Barbara and Dennis Musante, a California couple. Alaska Airlines flagged all three apparently because the first part of their last names, "Mus," matched at least one genuine terrorist on the "No Fly" list.
Musarra began contacting the airline and the TSA last September, but his problems with online check-in, electronic tickets and exhaustive airport searches persisted until March, when a Wall Street Journal reporter contacted the airline. He reports his last flight was hassle free.
The Musantes received a letter from the TSA apologizing for the mistake, defending the screening practices, and saying "the benefits of such measures far outweigh the inconveniences."
Julia O'Malley can be reached at email@example.com.
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