The "No Fly" List
They call me David Nelson and my name has been besmirched
When I fly across my country, I will always be stripsearched
Somewhere a David Nelson is allegedly quite mean
And the TSA ain't able to declare my person clean
-- The Ballad of Davids Nelson
The Ballad of Davids Nelson
is a short song about a man who is stopped by airport security for
having the same name as a suspected terrorist. The lyrics are meant to
be humorous, but they aren't so funny to someone whose name really is
The Transportation Security Agency (TSA)
maintains a list of 300 names of people the United States considers a
threat to air safety. Persons with these names are stopped at airports
and questioned until their identity can be verified. One of the names
on the list is David Nelson.
As a result, David Nelson, a Columbia University graduate student from
Kansas, is routinely stopped at the airport. Each time he goes to check
in, "the person behind the counter will look at you quizzically then
rush around and make mysterious phone calls." The person behind the
counter is doing a background check in order to clear him to travel.
While those calls are made, a police officer stands by David's side.
David Nelson, first base coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, and David
Nelson, a business consultant from Florida also are stopped on a
regular basis. "It's pretty much a hassle every time you fly," says the
These individuals are just examples. Others have been delayed or missed
flights, in addition to suffering what they describe as the indignities
of the procedure and the stares of their fellow passengers.
Flaws in the System
The TSA compiles the names for the "No Fly" list from intelligence and
law enforcement reports and sends the list to airlines. It is the
airlines' job to make sure nobody on the list gets onboard.
What sounds like a simple plan is proving very difficult to execute.
Many entries on the list lack details that could make it easy to know
if a traveler is really the person named. And the TSA gives airlines
little guidance on just when a passenger's name is close enough to one
on the list to warrant flagging the person for a law enforcement check.
The TSA admits there are a lot of problems with its system. One of the
largest being that the technology used to run the actual name checks is
old and outdated. The result of the flawed system is a large number of
innocent passengers being subjected again and again to law enforcement
The TSA is working to develop and implement the Computer Assisted
Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPS II), new technology which would
more precisely track terrorist suspects. The new screening program
would use a computer data-sifting process to match passenger name,
address, birth date and ticket-purchasing information against financial
and commercial databases and government watch lists. The goal is simple
— to verify a traveler's identity and look for any hint of security
This new approach to security is called data mining and administration
officials hope it will be fully in place by the TSA next year. However,
the system is already being highly criticized by civil liberties groups
who fear the information will be placed in a centralized database
containing every imaginable bit of information on all citizens. The TSA
insists their own officers or necessary law enforcement would be the
only ones with access to the information, and that the information will
be destroyed after the passenger has traveled.
Before CAPPS II can move forward it faces a great deal of scrutiny. An
amendment to the Homeland Security appropriations bill calls for much
stricter review of CAPPS II before funding is approved. On June 17 the
House Appropriations Committee voted to withhold fiscal 2004 funding
for CAPPS II, pending a review by the General Accounting Office. In
addition, the National Academy of Sciences will study the system's
effects on passengers' privacy and civil liberties.
Guns in the Cockpit?
While the TSA works to hone its technology, there's another
controversial plan for tightening up security in the air — providing
commercial airline pilots with guns. Those who are in favor of armed
pilots say there must be a last line of defense in case of another
terrorist attack by air. Those opposed feel the safety risk of guns in
the cockpit far outweigh their potential value.
In April the TSA graduated the first 44 pilots trained to carry guns as
part of a prototype program. These pilots are not required to take a
weapon with them every time they fly, but when they do, the must inform
the airlines and the flight crew. Passengers will not know if a pilot
Not all pilots will be allowed to carry guns. Of the approximately
75,000 commercial airline pilots, only volunteers can enter the
program. These candidates must pass background checks and psychological
tests and make it through a week of intensive physical training.
Admiral James Loy, head of the TSA, sees the training process as
critical. "I have infinite respect for the skill set necessary to
safely pilot an aircraft from point A to point B," says Loy, but "I
don't for a moment believe there is a natural transition that that same
skill set is the competence necessary to make the judgments associated
with pulling a weapon and discharging it into a human being."
Read the transcript of Gwen Ifill's interview with James Loy or add your comments to our online discussion.