What the no-fly list means for U.S. travelers
The TSA no-fly list should not affect the travel plans of most U.S. citizens. However, mistakes can be, and have been, made. Here are some basic facts.
Who is on the list?
The no-fly list is a compilation of people believed by the U.S government to be terrorists or who are suspected of engaging in terrorist activity. Those on the list are prohibited from flying to and from the U.S. and over U.S. airspace. This list is maintained by the FBI Terrorist Screening Center under the aegis of the Transportation Security Administration.
How many people are on the list?
It is a common misconception that the no-fly list and the Terrorist Screening Center's consolidated watch list are one and the same. In fact, the no-fly list is a much smaller subset of the latter. It's difficult to ascertain recent numbers due to the FBI's unwillingness to release such information, but as of 2011, an FBI fact sheet revealed 420,000 names on the consolidated watch list, 8,400 of whom were U.S. citizens. The no-fly list, on the other hand, contained 16,000 names, with 500 of them being American.
Secrecy and security
For security reasons, the no-fly list is surrounded by an air of secrecy. Many surprised travelers find out they're on the list only when they are kept from boarding their flights. As in any bureaucracy, mistakes are made. Duplicated names, misconstrued legal records, baseless suspicions, simple reporting errors — any of these could lead to an innocent person being added to the list. The situation is further muddled by the fact that people are not informed at the time they are listed. There is a reason for such secrecy, argues the TSA: If the list were made public, the real terrorists would know whether or not they were on it and take steps to change their identities and evade detection.
Can a name be removed from the no-fly list?
In certain cases, a traveler may be told the reasons for his being included on the no-fly list when being denied boarding. But in most circumstances, it's quite a bit more complicated than that. Anyone denied boarding or who feels he has been treated unfairly, had his civil rights violated or has been unreasonably detained while traveling can submit a standard complaint form to the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. The form is sent on to the appropriate department at the Terrorist Screening Center. At this point, the TSC determines what, if any, action should be taken. If the complainant is indeed on the no-fly list, he will receive a letter informing him of his status and given the option to submit a request for further information.
After this step is taken, the complainant will receive a summary of the criteria under which his name was placed on the list. This will not necessarily include details of his alleged suspicious activity. Regardless of the degree of specificity provided, however, the complainant may respond to the second letter and include any information or evidence he believes to be relevant. The government then reviews this information and renders a final decision. The process is long, tedious and possibly maddening, but for anyone whose name is mistakenly on the no-fly list, it is a necessary undertaking. If the initial attempt is unsuccessful, there are attorneys who are willing to help.
What to do if stranded overseas
U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have the right to return to U.S. territory after a trip abroad. If they are denied boarding in a foreign country because of an apparent inclusion on the U.S. no-fly list, they can seek redress from the U.S. government. In such a case, call the Overseas Citizens Service for help. Both a duty officer and an attorney should be available to offer assistance for the journey home.