Minutes before an American Airlines jet departed Washington, D.C. for Dallas in early September, crew members removed a female passenger from the plane following an apparent misunderstanding over her cell phone.
That passenger, who asked to be identified in this article as “Sarah” and who describes herself as “a little old lady,” has spent the last two months wondering if her name is now stamped on federal no-fly list — along with thousands of known or suspected anti-American terrorists.
Today, as the Transportation Security Administration implements its Secure Flight program, federal officials are eagerly clearing up misconceptions some travelers hold about the no-fly list — including what sorts of bad acts can earn a spot on the infamous ledger. Secure Flight requires all passengers to give airlines or travel companies their full names as they appear on their current government photo IDs plus their genders and dates of birth. The policy, says the TSA, will bolster aviation safety and “decrease the likelihood of watch list misidentification” — cases in which people who share the name of a terrorist are mistakenly barred from flying.
The no-fly list is owned and maintained by the FBI, and bureau spokesman Paul Bresson acknowledges “there’s a lot of confusion” when it comes to who and why some people are restricted from boarding certain commercial airlines. Which brings us back to Sarah.
As her plane taxied toward the runway eight weeks ago, Sarah asked a flight attendant if she could make a brief call to a family member to ease her pre-takeoff anxiety. Citing federal safety regulations, the flight attendant denied the request. Sarah then picked up her phone, she said in an interview last week, simply to ensure the device was turned off. When the flight attendant spotted the phone in Sarah’s hand, the crew member walked toward the cockpit. The plane immediately returned to its gate and Sarah was ordered to stand and exit.
Back inside the terminal, Sarah asked an American Airlines employee to rebook her on a later flight. According to Sarah, the employee “said I wasn’t going to be able to fly on American that whole day.” Her options that day, she was told, were to buy a ticket on another airline or fly from a different airport. Two days later, Sarah finally headed to Dallas on an American Airlines flight.
“I felt like I was on a list. I thought, ‘Oh great, they’ve got me in an FBI computer somewhere as somebody who is uncooperative,’ ” she recalled. “I was just so freaked out by the whole thing.”
‘A lot of confusion’
Can disruptive onboard behavior — or even an innocent mistake with a gadget — plunk a passenger on the FBI’s official no-fly list?
“The primary answer,” Bresson said, “is no. The guy who’s had too much to drink and is causing problems or picking fights with people on the plane? That is not going to put you on the (federal) no-fly list. Now, it could get you on the airline’s (banned) list. That’s different.
“The airlines keep their own lists,” Bresson added. And those multiple no-fly lists create “a lot of confusion.”
That uncertainty is shared by officials at the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a labor union representing more than 50,000 flight attendants at 22 airlines.
“Our (internal) air safety people aren’t even sure if those who have been charged with flight crew interference are even on the list,” said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the AFA. “We would be interested to find out if people who have been charged — not found guilty but just initially charged with flight crew interference — even get on an airline (no-fly) list.”
Interfering with a flight crew’s duties or failing to obey a flight attendant’s safety instructions can prompt a pilot to alert police in the destination city and can lead to the arrest of an offending passenger. Such actions are a federal crime, punishable by a fine of up to $25,000 plus jail time.
“Yes, unruly behavior can put you on a list that prohibits you from boarding an aircraft — the airline’s (no-fly) list,” said Trent Duffy, spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center, an FBI branch formed in 2003 to, according to its website, “consolidate the government’s approach to terrorism screening.”
“The airlines have a commercial interest in not allowing onboard a person who has proven to be unruly on their aircraft. But that’s not our deal,” Duffy said.
Two lists, one name
“The problem,” Duffy adds, arises due to overlapping, common terminology: the phrase “no-fly list is used to describe everything, including the airline’s own lists. And it all gets mixed together. But the no-fly list that the federal government operates is only for known or suspected terrorists.”
The federal no-fly list and accompanying “selectee” list contain, in total, less than 16,000 names, the Department of Homeland Services reported in late 2008. People designated by intelligence agencies as “selectees” are individuals the U.S. government is monitoring for possible terrorist ties. They are pulled out of security lines for extra screening but allowed to fly if they are not found to be carrying prohibited materials. Among those 16,000 people under watch, the no-fly list is comprised of less than 2,500 names — including a small slice of U.S. citizens that numbers “in the hundreds,” Duffy said.
Two domestic airlines contacted for this article were reluctant to reveal much about their internal no-fly lists. One industry official did say, however, that a passenger’s in-flight transgression “has to be something extremely bad” to cause an airline to permanently block them from boarding.
American Airlines' employees can “deny the boarding of a customer who has had a prior issue with the airline,” said spokesperson Billy Sanez. “That is no different than anybody doing commerce. Say you own a flower shop and somebody is being disruptive in the shop — you don’t have sell to somebody who is being disruptive.”
Sanez declined to elaborate on the number of names on American’s no-fly list, how long flyers may be banned or what onboard offenses might bar a passenger from buying a future ticket from the airline.
But once a customer is onboard and in the air, can their unruly behavior elicit no-fly threats from flight attendants — admonitions that uncooperative passengers may be banned by the airline or by the FBI?
“Our flight attendants do not have the authority to warn passengers that they may be added to the no-fly list,” said Southwest Airlines spokesman Paul Flaningan. “It’s something that’s not currently in our in-flight training.”
“A private company cannot make a nomination to our no-fly list,” said Duffy, of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center.
Club no one wants to join
In fact, “the only entities that can nominate individuals to the federal government’s no-fly list are the intelligence communities — the FBI and CIA on domestic side, and (intelligence agencies) on the foreign side,” Duffy added.
Many flight attendants do, however, have the power to quell rule-busting passengers by dangling the possibility of arrest, said Carolyn Paddock, a Delta Airlines flight attendant for 17 years. She left that job three years ago to launch InFlightInsider.com, which offers tips on traveling smart and stylishly.
And once a plane is back the ground, Paddock said, local “authorities would decide what would happen from there on.”
“The no-fly list is one club no one is interested in joining,” added Beth Blair, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant until 2004 and now a travel writer.
But based on her time in the air, Blair believes no-fly warnings don’t carry as carry as much clout with ill-behaved passengers as another verbal vow.
“Honestly,” Blair said, “I think the most common threat flight attendants use is cutting off the alcohol.”