It sounds like a joke, but it is not funny to parents who miss flights while scrambling to have babies' passports and other documents faxed.

Ingrid Sanden's one-year-old daughter was stopped in Phoenix before boarding a flight home to Washington at Thanksgiving.

"I completely understand the war on terrorism, and I completely understand people wanting to be safe when they fly," Sanden said. "But focusing the target a little bit is probably a better use of resources."

The government's lists of people who are barred from flying or require extra scrutiny before being allowed to board airplanes grew markedly since 11 September 2001.

Caught in sweeps

Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union say the government does not provide enough information about the people on the lists, so innocent passengers can be caught up in the security sweep if they happen to have the same name as someone on the lists.

That can happen even if the person is an infant, such as Sanden's daughter. (Children under two do not need tickets but Sanden purchased one for her daughter to ensure she had a seat.)

"It was bizarre. I was hugely pregnant, and I was like, 'We look really threatening'"

Ingrid Sanden,
passenger

"It was bizarre," Sanden said. "I was hugely pregnant, and I was like, 'We look really threatening'."

 

Sarah Zapolsky and her husband had a similar experience last month while departing from Dulles International Airport outside Washington. An airline ticket agent told them their 11-month-old son was on the government list.

They were able to board their flight after ticket agents took half an hour to fax her son's passport and fill out paperwork.

"I understand that security is important," Zapolsky said. "But if they're just guessing, and we have to give up our passport to prove that our 11-month-old is not a terrorist, it's a waste of their time."

Famous people

Well-known US personalities such as Senator Edward Kennedy, Representative John Lewis and TV actor David Nelson also have been stopped at airports because their names match those on the lists.

The US government says it has sought to improve its process for checking passengers since the 11 September attacks.

The list creates problems for
people with similar names

The first attempt failed because of fears the government would have access to too much personal information. A new version, called Secure Flight, is being crafted.

For now, airlines still have the duty to check passengers' names against those supplied by the US government.


That job has become more difficult – since the lists have expanded from a dozen or so names to more than 100,000 according to people in the aviation industry who are familiar with the issue.

They asked not to be identified by name because the exact number is restricted information.

Lack of information


Not all those names are accompanied by biographical information that can more closely identify what the US calls suspected terrorists.

That can create problems for people who reserve flights under such names as "T Kennedy" or "David Nelson".

ACLU lawyer Tim Sparapani said the problem of babies stopped by the no-fly list illustrated some of the reasons the lists had failed.

"Our information indicates it happens at every major airport"

Debby McElroy,
president of the Regional Airline Association

"There's no oversight over the names," Sparapani said. "We know names are added hastily, and when you have a name-based system you don't focus on solid intelligence leads.

"You focus on names that are similar to those that might be suspicious."

 

The Transportation Security Administration, which administers the lists, instructs airlines not to deny boarding to children under 12 - or select them for extra security checks - even if their names match those on a list.

But it happens anyway. Debby McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association, said: "Our information indicates it happens at every major airport."