US closes no-fly loophole exposed by Faisal Shahzad

Airlines must recheck passenger lists within two hours of being notified of a ‘special circumstances’ name on the no-fly list. The rule comes after the arrest of Faisal Shahzad at a New York airport.

John Gress/Reuters
A Continental Airlines Boeing 737 passenger jet passes United Airlines planes at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport Monday. The Obama administration announced Wednesday, airlines will be required to recheck passenger lists within two hours of being notified of a 'special circumstances' name on the no-fly list.

It’s now going to be harder for terror suspects to get on an airplane. At least in theory.

Airlines will be required, the Obama administration announced Wednesday, to manually recheck their passenger lists within two hours of being notified of a “special circumstances expedited No Fly name.”

An example of such an individual: Faisal Shahzad, who is now under arrest and is accused of trying to blow up a sport utility vehicle in Times Square on Saturday evening.

Mr. Shahzad was placed on the no-fly list on noon Monday, but he still managed to board an Emirates flight to Dubai on Monday night. He was arrested before the flight took off.

Up until Wednesday, airlines had a 24-hour window before a flight to check to see if travelers had been placed on the no-fly list.

Shahzad showed up at the airport without a reservation and paid cash for a ticket to leave the United States immediately.

In Shahzad’s case, “the airline seemingly didn’t check the name, and the suspect was allowed to purchase a ticket and obtain a boarding pass,” says an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the coming months, the process will change more because it will not be the airlines that will be checking the no-fly list. Three years ago, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began preparing to take over this responsibility from the airlines. The program is called Secure Flight.

According to the administration official, TSA will prescreen passenger information against the list for all domestic flights within the next two months. It will prescreen international passengers by the end of 2010.

Under Secure Flight, TSA processes information beginning up to 72 hours in advance of a flight and then vets the passenger list until the flight departs.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, some 3,400 names, including about 170 Americans, are on the no-fly list.

The no-fly list has been somewhat controversial in the past. Once an individual’s name got on the list, perhaps inadvertently, he or she found it difficult to get off the list. Civil libertarians complained about “false positives” and harassment.

Last year, after the attempted Christmas Day bombing over Detroit, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement, “Law enforcement routinely run names against the watchlists for matters as mundane as traffic stops, and innocent individuals may be harassed even if they don’t attempt to fly.”

Around the same time, Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, said on CNN’s show “State of the Union,” “You have to understand that you need information that is specific and credible if you’re going to actually bar someone from air travel.”

On Wednesday, David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said he thought the two-hour rule is a good idea. “It was sorely needed,” he said in an interview. “They need to make the security even tighter to make sure it does not happen again. It might inconvenience some people, but it’s a necessity for security.”

The industry will comply with the new rules, says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association.


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