Monday, August 17, 2009

The Secure Flight Scare...Relax

Domestic air travel in the United States is unpleasant enough without imagining things. That's what the rumors flying around about the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's new Secure Flight program are doing.

The other night, a news anchor at one of my local TV stations practically shrieked into the camera "What new information you're going to HAVE to give the government!'' in her intro to a report on the program - which is designed to deter terrorists from sneaking onto a flight.

Want to know what that information is? Your name, your date of birth and your gender.

Sounds like a dastardly guvmint plot, doncha think?

As misunderstandings go, it's not quite up there with people shouting down members of Congress and admonishing them to "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!'' - Medicare is a government program to begin with - but it's close enough.

Secure Flight started early this year when U.S. carriers were instructed to collect the above info from their passengers, and accelerated Aug. 15, when the TSA took over from the airlines to husband that info. Members of the traveling public have expressed concerns that they might be prevented from flying if their identification isn't in order, but in relatively rare cases will that happen under Secure Flight.

All told, it's a benign program that, if anything, arrives much later than it should have. It's been nearly eight years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when mass murderers used hijacked commercial aircraft; one would think that a nation that is serious about its security would have started collecting and cross-referencing such basic, basic information much sooner.

Will the program be implemented seamlessly? Probably not. But it should help reduce false-positives - that is, the detention of innocent travelers who have the misfortune to have a name that is the same, or nearly the same, as someone on a terrorist watchlist. Someone like Sen. Ted Kennedy, for example, who was hauled off to one side at an airport and questioned several years ago because someone that security officials are watching apparently has the same name.

The Secure Flight program requires only that travelers book their flights under the exact same name that they use on their main government-issued ID, whether that be a driver's license, a passport or something else. Reconciling the various forms of your name - a nickname on the ticket, say, but the full, formal name on your main ID - will have to be done. And that's all.

As reporter Michelle Higgins points out in her summary of what the new rules will and will not do (, posted Aug. 16):

"Under Secure Flight, the security agency checks a person's name against the terrorist watchlist shortly after a reservation is made, and usually well before someone gets to the airport and a boarding pass is printed, said Paul Leyh, the program director of Secure Flight. Once a person is cleared, Mr. Leyh added, Secure Flight gives the airline permission to issue that passenger a boarding pass.

"In other words, anyone with a boarding pass has already cleared Secure Flight.''

In other words...relax.There are much bigger things to worry about than this.

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