No Fly List

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The No Fly List is a list, created and maintained by the United States government's Terrorist Screening Center (TSC),[1] of people who are not permitted to board a commercial aircraft for travel in or out of the United States. The list has also been used to divert away from U.S. airspace aircraft not flying to or from the U.S.[2] The number of people on the list rises and falls according to threat and intelligence reporting.[citation needed] As of 2011, the list contained about 10,000 names.[3][4] In 2012, the list more than doubled in size, to about 21,000 names.[5] The list — along with the Secondary Security Screening Selection, which tags would-be passengers for extra inspection — was created after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The No Fly List is different from the Terrorist Watch List, a much longer list of people said to be suspected of some involvement with terrorism.[6] The Terrorist Watch List contained around 1,000,000 names by March 2009.[7][8]

The list has been criticized on civil liberties and due process grounds, due in part to the potential for ethnic, religious, economic, political, or racial profiling and discrimination. It has also raised concerns about privacy and government secrecy. Finally, it has been criticized as costly,[9] prone to false positives,[10] and easily defeated.[11]

The No Fly List, the Selectee List and the Terrorist Watchlist were created by the administration of George W. Bush and retained by the administration of Barack Obama. U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said in May 2010: “The no-fly list itself is one of our best lines of defense.”[12]


On September 11, 2001, the FBI had a list of 16 people deemed "no transport" because they "presented a specific known or suspected threat to aviation."[6] The list had grown to more than 400 names by November 2001, when responsibility for keeping it was transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration.[6]

In mid-December 2001, two lists were created: the "No Fly List" of 594 people to be denied air transport, and the "Selectee" list of 365 people who were to be more carefully searched at airports.[6] By December 2002, the No Fly List held more than 1,000 names.[citation needed] 60 Minutes reported on 8 October 2006 that the news program had obtained a March 2006 copy of the list that contained 44,000 names.[13] TSA officials said that, as of November 2005, 30,000 people in 2005 had complained that their names were matched to a name on the list via the name matching software used by airlines.[14] In April 2007, the United States government "terrorist watch list" administered by the Terrorist Screening Center, which is managed principally by the FBI, contained 700,000 records.[15] A year later, the ACLU estimated the list to have grown to over 1,000,000 names and to be continually expanding.[16]

However, according to Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, in October 2008 the No Fly list contained only 2,500 names, with an additional 16,000 "selectees", who "represent a less specific security threat and receive extra scrutiny, but are allowed to fly."[17]


In an article in The Atlantic,[11] security expert Bruce Schneier described a simple way for people to defeat the No Fly List:

Use a stolen credit card to buy a ticket under a fake name. Print a fake boarding pass with your real name on it and go to the airport. You give your real ID, and the fake boarding pass with your real name on it, to security. They’re checking the documents against each other. They’re not checking your name against the no-fly list—that was done on the airline’s computers. Once you’re through security, you rip up the fake boarding pass, and use the real boarding pass that has the name from the stolen credit card. Then you board the plane, because they’re not checking your name against your ID at boarding.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab[edit]

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was accused of trying to bomb Northwest Airlines Flight 253, was not on the No Fly List. Thirty-five days earlier, his father had made a report to two Central Intelligence Agency officers at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja regarding his son's "extreme religious views",[18][19] and told the embassy that Abdulmutallab might be in Yemen.[20] Acting on the report, Abdulmutallab's name was added in November 2009 to the 550,000-name U.S. Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a database of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. It was not added to the 4,000-name U.S. No Fly List.[21] Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano stated that the system "failed miserably", because Abdulmutallab had been able to board the flight.[22] President Barack Obama called the U.S.'s failure to prevent the bombing attempt "totally unacceptable", and ordered an investigation.[23]

Faisal Shahzad[edit]

Faisal Shahzad, who was convicted of planting a car bomb in Times Square, New York City,[24][25] was arrested after he had boarded Emirates Flight 202 to Dubai. He had been placed on the No Fly List earlier in the day.[26] The airline did not check the No Fly List for added names when Shahzad made his reservation that evening, when he later purchased the ticket,[26] or when he was allowed to board the plane. Only after a routine post-boarding check revealed that he was on the No Fly List[26] did agents board the plane and arrest him.[26]


Among the complaints about the No Fly List is the use of credit reports in calculating the risk score. In response to the controversy, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials said in 2005 that they would not use credit scores to determine passengers' risk score and that they would comply with all rights guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments.[27]

The European Union and other non-U.S. government entities have expressed concern about allowing the CAPPS II proposal to be implemented within their borders. During the early testing of the No Fly List and CAPPS II, the TSA privately asked airlines to disclose massive amounts of personal information about their passengers. This action has been said[who?] to be a violation of the Privacy Act of 1974, which forbids the government to compile secret databases on U.S. citizens.

The No Fly List has been variously described as Orwellian and Kafkaesque. Individuals usually do not know they have been put on the list until they attempt to board a plane. Efforts to discover the reasons for being barred from flying meet with indeterminate responses from the authorities, which would neither confirm nor deny that a name is on the List.[28]

In the midst of this controversy, the Government Accountability Office of the U.S. Congress produced a report critical of the CAPPS II system. It characterized the proposal as incomplete and seriously behind schedule, and noted that the TSA had failed to address "developmental, operational, and privacy issues identified by Congress". On July 14, 2004, TSA officials announced that CAPPS II was being pulled from consideration without proceeding to full testing. Critics have alleged that the TSA has merely chosen to start with a less controversial entry point that they are calling the "Registered Traveler" program.[29] TSA has also begun testing of another program called "Secure Flight", which is supposed to solve some of the problems of CAPPS I while avoiding the privacy issues of CAPPS II.

In January 2009, Marcus Holmes[30] conservatively estimated the total cost of the program to be $536 million since 9/11, with a reasonable estimation range that approaches $1 billion, and he questioned whether the benefits of the list outweigh the costs.[9]

False positives[edit]

A "false positive" occurs when a passenger who is not on the No Fly List has a name that matches or is similar to a name on the list. False positive passengers will not be allowed to board a flight unless they can differentiate themselves from the actual person on the list, usually by presenting ID showing their middle name or date of birth. In some cases, false positive passengers have been denied boarding or have missed flights because they could not easily prove that they were not the person on the No Fly List.

When an airline ticket is purchased, the reservation system uses software to compare the passenger's name against the No Fly List. If the name matches, or is similar to a name on the No Fly List, a restriction is placed in their reservation that prevents them from being issued a boarding pass until the airline has determined whether or not they are the actual person whose name is on the No Fly List. Passengers are not told when a restriction has been placed on their reservation, and they normally do not find out that anything is unusual until they attempt to check in. "False positive" passengers cannot use Internet check-in or the automatic check-in kiosks in airports. Any attempt to use them will normally result in a message that the check-in cannot be completed and that the passenger needs to see a live check-in agent.

In order to be issued a boarding pass, "false positive" passengers must present identification that sufficiently differentiates them from the person on the No Fly List. This can include, but is not limited to, date and place of birth, middle name, citizenship, passport number, etc. Depending on the airline, this clearance can be done either electronically, with the check-in agent keying the information into the system, or a manual procedure where the agent telephones a centralized security office to obtain clearance. Once a "false positive" passenger has been cleared for a flight, the clearance will usually, but not always, apply to the remaining flights on that reservation, including the return. However, the next time this passenger purchases an airline ticket, he (or she) will have to be cleared all over again. If a passenger's identification is insufficient to differentiate that passenger from a name on the No-Fly List, the airline will refuse to issue a boarding pass and tell the passenger to contact the TSA.

Policies vary from airline to airline as to whether a check-in agent will tell passengers why they must always have additional steps performed when they check in, or why they are unable to check in via Internet, kiosk, or at curbside. In some cases, check-in agents will incorrectly tell passengers that they must be cleared because they are "on the No Fly List", when in fact they are simply a "false positive" (having the same name as someone on the No-Fly List). False positive passengers who are ultimately issued boarding passes are not on the No Fly List. In the majority of instances, passengers are not told anything, and it is only through the repeated experience of needing to be cleared or being unable to use curbside, Internet or automatic check-in that they come to suspect that they are "false positives".

In an effort to reduce the number of false positives, DHS announced on April 28, 2008 that each airline will be permitted to create a system to verify and store a passenger's date of birth, to clear up watch list misidentifications. Passengers can voluntarily provide this information to the airline, which would have to be verified by presenting acceptable ID at the ticket counter. Once this data has been stored, travelers that were previously inconvenienced on every trip would be able to check in online or at remote kiosks.[31] It will be up to each individual airline to choose whether they wish to implement such a system.

False positives and other controversial cases[edit]

False positives and abuses that have been in the news include:

DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program[edit]

The DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) is a procedure for travelers who are delayed or denied boarding of an aircraft, consistently receive excess scrutiny at security checkpoints, or are denied entry to the U.S. because they are believed to be or are told that they are on a government watch list. The traveler must complete an online application at the Department of Homeland Security website, print and sign the application, and then submit it with copies of several identifying documents. After reviewing their records, DHS notifies the traveler that if any corrections of data about them were warranted, they will be made.

Travelers who apply for redress through TRIP are assigned a record identifier called a "Redress Control Number". Airline reservations systems allow passengers who have a Redress Control Number to enter it when making their reservation.

DHS TRIP may make it easier for an airline to confirm a traveler's identity. False-positive travelers, whose names match or are similar to the names of persons on the No Fly List, will continue to match that name even after using DHS TRIP, so it will not restore a traveler's ability to use Internet or curbside check-in or to use an automated kiosk. It does usually help the airline identify the traveler as not being the actual person on the No Fly List, after an airline agent has reviewed their identity documents at check-in.

DHS TRIP is often accused of being defunct and existing only to appease civil rights organizations without having any actual effect.[66]

ACLU lawsuits[edit]

On April 6, 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union "filed a nationwide class-action challenge to the government's No Fly List", in which they charge that "many innocent travelers who pose no security risk whatsoever are discovering that their government considers them terrorists – and find that they have no way to find out why they are on the list, and no way to clear their names."[67] The case was settled in 2006, when "the federal government agreed to pay $200,000 in attorneys' fees to the ACLU of Northern California" and to "[make] public, for the first time, hundreds of records about the government's secret 'no fly' list used to screen airline passengers after September 11, 2001."[14]

On August 5, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of 14 plaintiffs challenging their placement on the No Fly List. [68] and on June 24, 2014, U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown ruled in favor of the plantiffs saying that air travel is a “sacred” liberty protected by the U.S. Constitution[69] and ordered the government to change its system for challenging inclusion.[70]

Other lawsuits[edit]

A Malysian academic has been the first to successfully bring a suit involving the No Fly List to trial. On August 18, 2008, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling on behalf of Rahinah Ibrahim, overturning a lower court decision and allowing her case against inclusion in the No Fly List to proceed through the court system.[71] A public trial began on December 2, 2013 in San Francisco in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge William Alsup.[72] The judge frequently cleared the courtroom following the requests of government lawyers (even though the judge himself once declared that the reasons "don't make much sense sometimes."[28] After the government revealed that Ibrahim had ended up on the list because of human error by the FBI,[73] Alsup ruled on January 14, 2014 "that Ibrahim did have the right to sue and ordered the government to tell Ibrahim whether she is still on the list."[74]

Gulet Mohamed, a U.S. citizen from Virginia, was placed on the no-fly list as a teenager in 2011 while he was visiting family in Kuwait. Because he was on the no-fly list, he was unable to return to the U.S. before his visa expired.[75] He was taken into custody in Kuwait for overstaying his visa, where he alleges that he “was repeatedly beaten and tortured by his interrogators,” one of whom spoke “perfect American English.”[76] Kuwaiti authorities tried to deport him to the U.S., but the airline denied him boarding, presumably because he was on the U.S. no-fly list, and he was returned to prison. While he was imprisoned in Kuwait, a lawsuit was filed on his behalf in the Eastern District of Virginia by the Council on American Islamic Relations. After the lawsuit was filed, he was allowed to return to the U.S.; the U.S. government then moved to dismiss the lawsuit as moot.[77] On May 28, 2013, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the government's motion to dismiss Mr. Mohamed's lawsuit.[78] On January 22, 2014, Judge Anthony J. Trenga denied most of another government motion to dismiss the lawsuit, allowing the case to proceed toward trial.[79]

No fly lists in other countries[edit]

The government of Canada has created its own no fly list as part of a program called Passenger Protect.[80] The Canadian list incorporates data from domestic and foreign intelligence sources, including the U.S. No Fly List.[81] It contains between 500 and 2,000 names.[82]

Satirical responses[edit]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]