Slate's Explainer: Diverting 'No-Fly' Passengers

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Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains why airlines divert flights with suspicious passengers in mid-flight, instead of checking passengers' names against "no-fly" lists before take-off.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, a common feature of international air travel, and of cable news, is the diverted flight. Just last week, a flight from Milan to Boston was diverted to Bangor, Maine, because the plane was carrying a passenger whose name appeared on the government's no-fly list. While some may find this vigilance comforting, others are asking this question: Why doesn't the government check passengers against the no-fly list before the plane takes off? That sounds like an Explainer question. Here is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

The answer is because of Department of Homeland Security regulations. When passengers check in for international flights headed to the United States, the airline does do a quick name check. This preflight verification usually includes running passenger names against the estimated 30,000 names on the DHS' no-fly list. DHS constantly updates and refines the list, but sometimes airlines don't have the most recent versions. When that happens, misspelled names and omissions permit passengers on the no-fly list to pass through the system.

US Customs and Border Protection, which is part of Homeland Security, provides a second, more thorough check of the passenger list. The airlines are required to send Customs their manifest containing passenger data. The DHS allows the airlines to send this information as late as 15 minutes after takeoff, meaning sometimes no-fliers aren't caught until the plane is in the air. If Customs finds a person of interest is on board, the Transportation Security Administration can order the flight to return to its point of origin or to land at the closest airport. Bangor, Maine, is the most common diversion airport for incoming trans-Atlantic flights because it's the easternmost major airport in the United States.

Following several highly publicized diversions--most notably the detention of folksinger Cat Stevens, aka Yusuf Islam--the government has proposed making airlines turn over their manifests as early as an hour before the flight. But airlines say earlier deadlines would be a financial burden.

CHADWICK: That Explainer from Slate's Andy Bowers with research by Keelin McDonell.

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