Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Friday, June 30, 2006

William Allen = "Familiar Name" = Threat To National Security! And What To Do About It If It Happens To You

As Independence Day is just days away, my thoughts go to things patriotic and my proud family heritage of having lived in what's now the United States for almost 400 years and of having continuously earned my American stripes for 230 years. And it made me think of this travel issue of our times:

We've all read stories of well-known people like Ted Kennedy who somehow got on the TSA Terrorist Watch List.

Well, I, too, am one of those people.

It seems that every "William Allen" on earth is on the TSA Watch List, or, in the vernacular of the shadowy TSA world, I have a "familiar name."

That's the term whispered by airline personnel when I show up at the check-in counter because I couldn't check in on line; they say, "He has a familiar name." It's the code word for being on the TSA Terrorist Watch List.

Even my seven year old son, also named William Allen, is on it. He was denied a boarding pass by Delta Airlines in recent months because, well, simply because his name is William Allen. (But Delta relented when they saw he was a short, skinny 48-pounder and probably no threat to anyone.)

Point is that this is dumb.

When I was growing up, I thought the name William Allen was special; later I discovered that only the John Smiths of the world are more numerous than the William Allens.

But apparently the name is more special than I realized. I pity the millions of other William Allens out there who also get hassled for no other reason than their name.

Take my case: My family has been here since the 1600s. My forebears fought honorably in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, and World war II. Some of them died for their country. I am a member of the Society of the Cincinnati because my lineage traces to an officer in George Washington's Continental Army. My family has risked death over and over to be Americans and to live free in this country for well over two hundred years.

But all that counts for naught when I go to the airport. I am guilty by association with somebody, some time, somewhere, who used "William Allen" as an alias and is (was?) suspected of nefarious activities.

So what is one to do as a practical matter when this happens?

It seems that you can never get off the list. Yes, there are Homeland Security addresses given, and you can write and try to get off the list permanently. But it's all Kafkaesque, and you are not likely to be successful. The government has us all by the short hairs on this one.

There are two things you CAN do, though, that are easier:

First, if you are an elite member of an airline, as I am at Delta, American, Continental, and Northwest, the back offices of those carriers do SOMETHING (I don't know what exactly) in their computer systems once a year to vouch for me (and their other elites on the watch list) as a peaceful, law-abiding citizen. After that I am treated as an ordinary person for the entire year on those carriers. I can check in on line, and I am not automatically a selectee for additional screening (except once in a while, like everyone) simply because of my name.

Second, always take your U.S. passport with you when you travel if you are on the list. Getting approved to fly on each flight, once on the watch list, can take 15-30 minutes, and sometimes longer, because check-in counter agents are required to call special numbers at their company's headquarters to receive clearance just to give us "familiar name" people a boarding pass.

However, if you have your passport, they can scan it through their card readers, which almost every airline has now at every airport, and that alone will prove that this particular William Allen is OK. A boarding pass can then be immediately issued.

It's still a hassle, and it's demeaning and infuriating to think that they think that I might have a connection with some nutcase in Kabul, but it solves the immediate logistical issue of getting on my airplane that day.

If you suddenly find that you, too, have a "familiar name," complain. Maybe you'll have better luck with your government officials than I have had. And if you do have better luck, please share it with me.


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