TSA may fine airlines over mistaken terrorist IDs

Published 4 August 2008

The ACLU says there are one million names on the DHS terrorist watch list, while TSA says there are only 400,000; whatever the exact figure is, TSA wants to make sure that the airlines do not misidentify innocent passengers as terrorists, and threatens to sue airlines which do so

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is threatening to fine airlines up to $25,000 when they erroneously tell passengers they are on a terrorist watch list. USA Today’s Thomas Frank writes that TSA officials, frustrated that carriers have not taken steps to eliminate the hassle that occurs when a passenger has a name similar to someone on a terrorist watch list, plan to meet with airlines to “make sure they aren’t alarming people and telling them they’re on a watch list when they aren’t,” said agency spokeswoman Ellen Howe. Airlines compare passenger names to government watch lists before a flight. When airlines find an apparent match, passengers cannot print a boarding pass at home or at airport kiosks and must go to an airline check-in counter with ID to show they are not a suspected terrorist. “People are inconvenienced by that every day,” Howe said. The TSA has urged airlines to keep records of passengers who’ve been cleared after being mistaken for terrorists so the mistakes won’t happen again. Airlines say they have spent millions of dollars to improve their passenger-identification systems, said David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association, the airline trade group. “There may be some isolated and inadvertent instances where passengers were incorrectly told they were on a watch list,” Castelveter said. “Carriers do everything possible to prevent them from happening.”

The TSA’s pressure comes shortly after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that one million people are on terrorist watch lists, and CNN reporter Drew Griffin reported he was placed on the watch list after airing a story critical of the TSA. TSA chief Kip Hawley disputed both reports, saying the watch list has 400,000 names and that no CNN reporter had been added. At a Capitol Hill hearing 24 July, Hawley criticized airlines for not doing enough to eliminate identity mistakes and for wrongly telling passengers they are on a watch list when they only have a name similar to someone else on the list. “We will not tolerate anyone saying to a member of the public that you’re on a watch list,” Hawley told the House aviation subcommittee. “That undercuts the credibility of the system.” The TSA said in a statement that it is “actively exploring enforcement action” against airlines that make such misstatements. Howe said the agency hopes to avoid penalties by getting airlines to stop misinforming passengers.