By Curt Yeomans
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is rolling out a new initiative to reduce the number of people prohibited from doing online flight check-ins because they share a name with some one on a terrorism watch list.
The TSA established a program on April 28, in which airlines can keep track of a traveler's birth date, if he or she has been flagged because his or her name matches one on the watch list that is compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Terrorist Screening Center.
"We would be able to determine whether or not someone is a person who is on the watch list, and [if he or she is not the same person], enable him or her, in the future, to use the same check-in measures as other passengers," said TSA spokesman Jon Allen.
Once a name is placed on the watch list, any other name which may match it is flagged as a possible terrorist. The TSA uses the example of a person named Joseph Joseph Joseph being on the watch list. Any variation of that name, such as Joseph J. Joseph, Joe J. Joseph, or J.J. Joseph is flagged, because it could be the same person.
According to the TSA, a name gets on a watch list through the following method:
· Law enforcement and intelligence agencies, such as the FBI and the CIA, use their resources to determine who should be put on lists such as the No Fly list, and the passenger watch lists.
· Those agencies send the names to the Terrorist Screening Center.
· The screening center sends the lists to the TSA, which then distributes them to the airlines.
· The airlines check all of their passenger manifests to make sure names on the lists provided by the TSA do not match names on the manifests.
If a traveler has the same name, or a similar one, as a person on the watch list, he or she can not use online flight check-in from a home computer, or a check-in kiosk at the airport. He or she can only check in at the ticket counter, operated by a human being, for the airline providing his or her flight.
The ticket agent has to use the traveler's birth date to determine whether the potential passenger is someone who is on the watch list. This procedure has to be done by an airline employee, and until now, the information has not been stored for future use.
Under the TSA's new initiative, airlines have the option of keeping the birth date in a database after the traveler boards his or her flight. The airline then keeps track of that information so it will automatically know whether the traveler is the same person who is on the watch list. That is, If the passenger agrees to let the airline keep his or her birth date information.
It is up to each airline to figure out how the information will be stored until the responsibility for doing the verifications is taken over by the TSA's Secure Flight program, which will be introduced in 2009.
The new system essentially works like a "cookie," which is kept by a computer, Allen said. When a person visits a web site, such as Mapquest.com, a cookie saves the locations the person looked at. That way, the person only has to type in the first few digits, or letters, of an address, and the computer can fill in the rest of the location because the computer remembers the previous search.
Likewise, once the traveler has been cleared to fly one time, he or she can use online check-in from home, or a kiosk at the airport in the future.
"It is certainly up to each airline as to whether or not they use this, but we anticipate this is something they will want to use, because it will help the travelers," Allen said.