Secure Flight Initiative: TSA Takes Charge of Passenger Screening, Encouraging Precision in Name Matching

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is gearing up to assume the responsibility of checking passengers’ names against terrorist watch lists, shifting away from the airlines. Travelers are advised to start booking airline tickets using their full name as per their driver’s license or passport.

Later this summer, the TSA will also mandate airlines to collect passengers’ birth date and gender during the ticketing process to enhance the accuracy of the watch list matching process. This information will then be transferred to the TSA.

However, the intricacies of names pose a challenge for many reservation systems, which are not currently equipped to handle them. Airlines reassure passengers not to worry if there is no provision for middle names or birth dates during ticket purchase.

“I think the most important thing for passengers to know is that when their airline is ready to ask for that information, they’ll ask for it,” emphasized Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines, echoing advice from other carriers.

The TSA has set a target date of August 15 for airlines to begin collecting each passenger’s full name, gender, and date of birth under the Secure Flight program. The implementation will occur in phases as airlines update their systems.

Paul Leyh, the director for Secure Flight at the TSA, emphasized aligning information if discrepancies exist, stating, “If your name is Jonathan Smith and you travel as John Smith and your license says Johnny Smith — get all those things aligned.”

The objective is to streamline the process of checking travelers’ names against watch lists and collect more detailed information to reduce mistaken detentions. Asking for birth dates, for example, aims to minimize false matches, such as with children who have similar names on the watch list.

As part of the Secure Flight program, travelers experiencing name-related issues can obtain a “redress number” for identity clearance. This number, along with other passenger information, will be sent to the TSA for watch list checks, determining clearance, additional searches, or flight restrictions.

“Secure Flight is going to allow us to clear over 99 percent of passengers,” said Mr. Leyh.

For cleared travelers, the TSA retains information for seven days. For potential matches, data is kept for seven years, and for confirmed matches, it is stored for 99 years. Privacy concerns and data storage issues had initially delayed the transfer of name-matching duties from airlines to the government.

While objections regarding the scope of information collected have been addressed, concerns persist about the quality of watch list data. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, supports efforts to enhance accuracy but highlights the lack of transparency and redress for those on the list.

The upcoming change may cause frustrations for individuals with varying names who must standardize their information across documents. Names with hyphens, foreign characters, spaces, or just initials, as well as individuals with two middle names, are among the concerns raised by travelers.

“Nicknames are going to be one of the bigger issues,” acknowledges Paul Flanigan, a spokesman for Southwest, which plans to start collecting Secure Flight data in October.

Many airlines currently do not provide a space for middle names when booking online. Still, the current message is clear: if airlines don’t ask for it, passengers don’t need to provide it.

“We’re telling customers, do business with us as you’ve always done,” assured Kent Landers, a Delta spokesman. “When the systems are ready to accept the data, we’ll advise passengers.”