WASHINGTON — Air travelers who can prove they don't belong on terrorist watch lists could be spared extra scrutiny under a new program that addresses the public's biggest complaint about aviation safety, the nation's Homeland Security chief said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told USA TODAY that the program will be announced today and is aimed at the tens of thousands of travelers who are pulled aside for questions at airports because their names match those on government watch lists.
"It's the Ted Kennedy problem," Chertoff said, referring to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy who announced in 2004 he had been repeatedly stopped at airports because his name was similar to someone flagged for possible links to terrorism.
In such situations, airlines are required to check identification and ask several security questions to make sure the traveler is not the person on the watch list. Under the new program, innocent travelers would have a new option: to allow the airline to add their names and dates of birth into company records.
That way, the airline from that day on would know those travelers already have proven their names are on the watch list coincidentally.
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"After that, they will get their boarding pass just like everyone else does," Chertoff said. On subsequent trips, those fliers also would be allowed to obtain their boarding passes over the Internet.
There have been countless stories of celebrities, children and senior citizens being mistaken for people on watch lists and subject to tougher airport scrutiny. Identity mistakes "come up a lot in the Muslim community," Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley said.
One potential rub is that travelers will need to provide extra personal information to each airline they fly on. It's also up to the airlines whether they participate in the program. Some airlines could balk at incorporating more information into an already complex computer ticketing and reservation system.
"We're encouraged there is another process to improve service," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association airline trade group. "The airlines will need to learn more about the program to determine to what extent they can use it."
Chertoff said the program ought to be a no-brainer. "The airlines would be crazy not to do this," he said, noting that the identity problem is "the biggest single complaint" about aviation security."
The new effort to stop identity errors aims to expand on a government program launched in February 2007 that tries to remove names from the watch list that don't belong there. But Homeland Security's Traveler Redress Inquiry Program has drawn complaints from such lawmakers as Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., who say the process takes too long.
About 2,000 people a month seek to clear their names. Homeland Security says some travelers are reluctant to use its program because they're reluctant to give personal information to the government.