At the Airport: No-Fly Lists and Behavior Analysis

Print More
For obvious reasons, security after September 11 showed its sharpest increase in airports.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

For obvious reasons, security after September 11 showed its sharpest increase in airports.

If you were on the government’s “no-fly” list a few years ago, there’s a 50 percent chance that you’re off it now. The Transportation Security Administration still refuses to reveal how many people are on the no-fly list, but a spokesperson does say that after a “name-by-name review” completed in February 2007, half the names were found to be “individuals that are no longer deemed to pose a threat to aviation” and “were removed or downgraded to selectee status.”

“Selectee status” refers to people who can board planes, but only after getting a thorough check; both it and the no-fly list are derived from the government’s overall terrorism watch list. The TSA won’t reveal how many people are on the selectee list—or tell you if you’re one of them—because that would tip off terrorists to how comprehensive the watch list is.

If you were on the no-fly list, you’d know about it, because you’d never be issued a boarding pass. But it’s impossible to know if you’re on the selectee list because you can be selected for special screening at the airport even if you aren’t watch-listed. If you think you’re on either list by mistake, the Department of Homeland Security has a program called TRIP (Traveler Redress Inquiry Program), through which passengers can clear up any confusion between their name and a terrorist’s. There is, however, no direct way to challenge the underlying terrorist watch list; the FBI doesn’t accept public appeals. You can only complain to agencies, like the TSA, about their use of the watch-list data.

Right now, airlines check passengers’ names against these lists. The federal government is taking over that operation with a system called Secure Flight, which will soon arrive at New York’s two airports. Two other new programs are already at JFK and LaGuardia. Under Registered Traveler, passengers who are willing to provide biometric data to private companies can qualify for a special identification card that allows them to bypass some airport security. And SPOT, or Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, “is designed to detect individuals exhibiting behaviors that indicate they may be a threat to aviation and/or transportation security.” TSA officers trained in SPOT look for “involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered” and tag those passengers for extra security checks.

Even travelers who aren’t on a watch list or eyed by SPOT-trained officers face more scrutiny than they did before September 11 at airports, where armed military personnel in camouflage still sometimes patrol the terminals. The TSA maintains a long list of items you aren’t supposed to pack in your checked baggage. People carrying spear guns, cattle prods or meat cleavers (these items are actually singled out in TSA literature as no-nos) probably deserve whatever scrutiny they get. But the liquid rules—imposed in 2006 after an alleged plane-bombing plot was foiled in Britain—expose fairly personal conditions to public scrutiny, especially if you want to carry more than the allowed three ounces. Should you, for example, want to bring extra K-Y Jelly (specifically identified in TSA literature) for “medical purposes” you must “declare you have the items to one of our Security Officers at the security checkpoint,” according to the TSA. Luckily, “Gel-filled bras may be worn through security screening and aboard aircraft,” the agency says.

There’s even enhanced security for people who’ve already landed: Customs and Border Protection says it “discourages” arriving international passengers from using their cell phones or laptops while waiting for their baggage. And security will continue to evolve. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports and has an agency-wide public safety staff of 1,700, is devoting $3.1 billion under its current 10-year capital plan for security enhancements.