June 9, 2006

Terrorism prevention in practice

The following comes from a family friend, Mike Grant, who happens to work for an IT vendor, Trilogy. He’s your typical white, American-accented, personable, well-mannered, well-organized, highly intelligent, highly articulate mid-20s Johns Hopkins graduate.

As you’ve heard, I’ve had a wild couple of months at the airport. Here is the unabridged version 🙂

In October 2004, I began commuting from Austin, TX to Akron, OH fairly regularly to work on a consulting project for Goodyear. By January, my role basically required me to be in Akron Monday through Thursday each week. I’d get on a 6:30 AM flight each Monday morning from AUS-IAH, pick up an IAH-CLE connection, and then drive from Cleveland to Akron. I’d do the same route in reverse on Thursday evenings. It’s a heck of a way to make a living.

Anyone who’d talked to me much during my time in Austin knew that I was constantly looking for an excuse to move back east. With the consulting engagement going full-steam ahead and my constant travel, I floated the idea of moving to Philadelphia and, after some negotiation, my manager signed off.

Since I’d still need be in Akron during the week, I decided to move back immediately and spend weekends with friends and family in Pennsylvania for the first few months. This would give me plenty of time to find an apartment and figure out the logistics of moving my belongings back. With my travel schedule every week, it would be easy to hop back and forth as necessary. So in mid February, after the usual weekly trip to Akron, I immediately turned around and drove my car back to Pennsylvania with a few suitcases and boxes.

After a solid two days of driving, I was back in the Philadelphia area. I had to head up to Akron immediately after I got back, and so I arrived at the PHL airport bright and early on Monday morning. This is where my troubles started.

When I went through the usual electronic checking process, I got a strange message: “Your reservation requires special handling. Please see an representative for assistance.” I figured the flight was oversold, or had been cancelled, and so I got in the regular ticketing line. After 10 minutes of waiting I was able to talk to an agent. I explained what had happened, and that I wasn’t sure what the problem was. She picked up the telephone, waited for a minute, said something I couldn’t really understand, and mentioned my name. After a minute, she hung up without saying anything, and handed me a ticket. It seemed that she had been able to resolve the problem. The flight hadn’t been cancelled, and I had my ticket, so I didn’t think much of it–until the the same thing happened in Cleveland on the way back.

“Your reservation requires special handling.”

CLE is a major Continental hub, and so the lines for the ticketing agents are longer than in PHL. After about 30 minutes, I got to the counter and went through a similar drill with the agent: make a phone call, read off some numbers, say my name, hang up, give me a ticket. I mentioned that the same thing had happened to me on my previous flight.

“Oh, yeah, they didn’t tell you about the watch list?,” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“You’re on the master terrorist watch list.”

Well, I was shocked. The agent was very friendly and explained that this didn’t mean I was in any kind of trouble. There are thousands of names on the list, she told me, and the phone call just alerts the TSA that I’m going to be flying. I could go to the TSA website, she said, and find information about how I could “clear myself.”

Although I couldn’t find a link on the TSA website, I was finally able to find the TSA Watch List Clearance Procedures by doing some searching. It requires you to fill out a bunch of personal information and provide 3 forms identification, in the form of notarized or certified copies. I filled out as much of the form as I could, but I wouldn’t be back in Texas for several weeks, and only had my driver’s license with me at the time.

For someone who flies twice a week, having to wait in line to speak to a representative is a real drag. I was able to get other little bits and pieces of information from some of the ticketing agents. Most of them agreed that my drive from Texas to Pennsylvania had probably done me in. To TSA, they’d see a round trip from AUS, and then two days later a trip from PHL under the same name with nothing in between. One suspected it was simply my frequent travel that got me stuck on the list. Another lady mentioned that the list works by matching first initial and last name, and that there was probably a known terrorist with an alias of “M. Grant.” A man at the Continental counter in PHL told me that they would frequently put air marshals on flights with a watch list traveller, which spooked me a little, although I never saw anyone who looked like he was watching me.

At any rate, after a few weeks I was able to get back to Austin to collect all my various forms of identification. I took me another week or so to find the time to get everything notarized. Finally, I sent in my Passenger Identity Verification Form, and waited. I ended up waiting for over 3 months before I was cleared.

I have the bizarre habit of collecting my ticket stubs and jackets. I’ve got a pile of them about 3″ thick sitting on a bookshelf. While I was on the list, they’d have to issue me the old-style thick printed tickets that you get at the counter instead of the paper printouts from the electronic check-in machines. I went through and counted those old-style tickets, and determined that I had made 29 flights while on the watch list.

In most respects, being on the list was nothing more than an inconvenience for me. Yes, I had to spend countless hours waiting in line for the ticket counter. But what bothered me more than the wasted time was the “guilty until proven innocent” mentality, and the apparent haphazardness with which one is added to the list in the first place.

I just got my new Pennsylvania driver’s license this week, and I’m hoping the TSA doesn’t find it suspicious that I’ve got a new license so quickly after getting my clearance. I would imagine that a second stint on the master terrorist list is far less pleasant than the first.

TSA Watch List Clearance Procedures

TSA Passenger Identity Verification Form


2 Responses to “Terrorism prevention in practice”

  1. Mike Grant on June 9th, 2006 3:59 pm

    This is sort of an interesting experiment: http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,71115-0.html?tw=rss.index

    Not something I’m brave enough to try, though.

  2. Curt Monash on June 10th, 2006 1:01 am

    LOL, Mike.

    Again, thanks for sharing!


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