James Rogers is a Bethesda attorney. Mary Smith is a political economy major at Georgetown University. And Kevin Johnson is a pop music critic from St. Louis.
Catching a flight has become a headache for all three frequent fliers because they have common names that resemble entries on the government's "no-fly" list.
They have been stopped at airline ticket counters and even missed flights as airline employees checked databases to be sure the travelers weren't terrorists. And they are among readers who responded to an invitation to share their no-fly experiences with Business Class.
The federal list has come under increased scrutiny lately because of celebrities stopped at the airport. Yusuf Islam, the pop singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, was barred from the country because his name is one of 20,000 on the list. And politicians, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, were stopped because their names resembled those of someone on the list.
Many others who aren't famous are just as frustrated, like Rogers, Smith and Johnson and the more than 2,000 people who have complained about such mix-ups to the Transportation Security Administration.
For such travelers, the first sign of trouble often comes when they try to use airport ticket kiosks, the ATM-like machines that save travelers time by allowing them to avoid the lines at the ticket counters. Each time they swipe a credit card to obtain a boarding pass, a message pops up telling them to see one of the airline's ticketing agents.
Rogers said he was "tagged" by the machines twice in August and later held up at the gate after airline agents told him he was on the no-fly list. During both trips, Rogers was returning to Washington on a one-way ticket after he helped drive his daughters to college.
The first time, Rogers said, an Independence Air agent at the Nashville airport told him he was flagged because there was a James Rogers on the no-fly list. The same thing happened a week later on Southwest Airlines.
"There are a lot of James Rogers out there," said Rogers, a frequent flier on United, American and US Airways. "I have a high degree of skepticism of the maintenance of these lists."
Rogers was able to make both of his flights, but other readers say they missed their flights while airline employees disappeared behind a partition for a lengthy review of the travelers' identification.
Last week, Mary Smith tried to board the Delta shuttle at Reagan National Airport for a weekend trip home to New York. Smith, a card-carrying Delta frequent flier, makes the trip several times a month during the school year. When she arrived at the shuttle gate, Smith said she handed the Delta agent her frequent flier card, her driver's license and her Georgetown ID (to verify she was eligible for the student fare). The agent took her information, typed it into the computer, then told her the airline had to obtain additional "clearance" and disappeared with Smith's identification in hand. Nearly two hours and two shuttle flights later, she said, the agents returned.
Angry, Smith demanded that the gate agent return her driver's license so she could catch the US Airways shuttle flight instead. Her name came up on the list at US Airways as well. But after a half-hour, Smith was cleared for the flight.
The airlines say they're following government rules to ensure safe flights.
But for many travelers caught up in the no-fly confusion, the best bet appears to be a slight change in how they identify themselves. Rogers said he plans to start using his middle initial for future reservations. Smith said she plans to add her middle name, Allerton, when she flies. "I guess I'll just have to start getting to the airport even earlier," she said.
TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said using middle initials, middle names or even suffixes such as "Jr." could cut down the number of "false positives." He said the government is working on a new computer screening system called "secure flight" that seeks to eliminate the problem. The new system, Hatfield said, will allow the government to compare information from the airline reservation system against other databases to see if the passenger really matches the name on the list. The new system is expected to debut in March.
In the meantime, travelers can submit background information in exchange for a letter from the TSA that they can show airline personnel whenever they fly. To obtain that letter, travelers can visit the TSA's Web site at www.tsa.gov or call 877-266-2837.
Until the system changes, though, some travelers are likely to be stopped coming and going. Last month, St. Louis Post-Dispatch music critic Kevin Johnson said he waited a half-hour in the St. Louis airport after a Northwest Airlines agent disappeared with his passport to find out if he was the person on the government's list.
For his return flight from Toronto to St. Louis, Johnson assumed everything was cleared up. But he was stopped again at the airport. This time, he ended up missing his flight and had a two-hour wait.
"I can't imagine everyone with the name Kevin Johnson is being stopped like this," he said. "That's a lot of Kevin Johnsons being stopped."
Cheaper Seats to Atlanta: For years, the least expensive seats to Atlanta out of the Washington area departed from Dulles International Airport, thanks in large part to AirTran and, since this summer, Independence Air.
Now US Airways is promoting cheap fares to Atlanta out of Reagan National Airport. The airline is offering an introductory round-trip fare to Atlanta for $98. (Regular round-trip fares ranged from $118 with advance purchases to as much as $698 for walk-up fares.) US Airways won't be using its mainline jets for the discount service. Instead, it will be flying 72-seat Embraer planes operated by its regional partner, MidAtlantic Airways.
Tickets have to be purchased by Nov. 8, and travel must be between Feb. 6 and May 27. However, US Airways has said it could be out of business by February if the bankruptcy court doesn't approve about $950 million in cost cuts.