Are we more secure with Secure Flight?

If you've purchased an airline ticket recently, your airline or travel agent likely asked for your full legal name or the name on your passport, as well as your birth date. After years of delays and rounds of controversy, the Department of Homeland Security's "Secure Flight" initiative is rolling out.

Secure Flight's objective is to make us safer from terrorist threats when we fly, but the program has faced significant questions, opposition and implementation issues since its inception. Airlines have been matching passenger manifests to lists of known or suspected terrorists since the 9/11 attacks, but in 2002 Congress passed a law mandating that the list checking function be taken over by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Seven years later, that transition is finally underway. Concerns over passenger privacy have been addressed by scaling back the data collected by airlines and passed along to the government. Only the passenger's full legal name, sex and birth date will be used, but revamping airline and travel agency systems to collect this data has been an expensive and monumental effort.

Another major issue created by checking passenger names against the "no fly" lists occurs when an innocent passenger happens to share the same name or alias with a known or suspected terrorist. In that situation the innocent traveler is constantly singled out or further screening until the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can verify that this person is not the wanted terrorist. It is hoped the expanded data will mean fewer false matches and fewer innocent passengers singled out for further screening.

TSA has also tackled the "redress" issue on how innocent passengers clear their names if they are falsely identified as a terrorist. TSA seems to have quelled most initial concerns, but using full legal names raises a new issue for millions of Americans. From now on, every airline ticket you purchase will bear your full legal name and all your identification cards must match as well.

Like many business travelers, I belong to multiple frequent flier programs, use several credit cards and have numerous relationships with travel agencies and websites for purchasing travel. Some vendors know me as David Grossman, others as Dave Grossman, others as David G. Grossman, still more as D. Grossman. David George Grossman appears only on my driver's license and passport.

Because of Secure Flight, millions of Americans will need to change the names they're currently using with every travel vendor. It's a costly exercise for individuals and travel suppliers. Will it be worth the hassle? Or more specifically, will it help catch or thwart terrorists?

There are many skeptics. Bruce Schneier, an expert and author on security technology, believes Secure Flight is an ineffective way to prevent terrorism.

To begin with, Schneier claims the entire concept of a no-fly list doesn't make much sense. "It is a list of people so dangerous that can't be allowed to fly for any reason, yet so innocent we can't arrest them," says Schneier. "What kind of moronic list is this? Either arrest the people or get them off the list."

Schneier points out that regardless of how the TSA assesses the effectiveness of the no-fly list, it is forced to enact the legislation passed by Congress in 2002. "Even if TSA thinks this is an utter 100% waste of money, they still have to do it," says Schneier. "They can't say what I just said because they are required by law to do it."

"Airline security isn't going to make people safer," says Schneier. He questions why we spend billions of dollars on security at airports while leaving other mass gathering places, like shopping malls vulnerable, for example.

He also claims a distinction between the tactic and the target. "All you're doing is defending against what the bad guys did last weeks ... It doesn't make the nation any safer because we're not focusing on where the attack might come from tomorrow," says Schneier.

I agree wholeheartedly. No measures can defend against everything a terrorist can do, yet we always try to do so after the fact. Empty the metal from your pockets, remove your coats and hats, take your laptop out of your bag, take off your shoes, now put them directly on the belt, empty all your bottles of liquid, etc. After every incident we add another ridiculous rule, yet the next attack is always something completely different. There has to be a more intelligent way to defend ourselves.

Schneier says that pre 9/11 airport security did its job, and yet we suffered a horrific attack. "The terrorists didn't use guns, bombs, or knives," which would have been stopped by the screeners. "They used the fact that the passengers didn't realize they had to fight back," Schneier says. It took passengers four hours to figure out what they had to do to thwart the next attack, and it will never happen again – not because a no fly list is keeping bad guys off of airplanes, but because no passengers or airline crew would let it happen again. The terrorists know that, so all that extra money hiring an army of baggage screeners and airport lobbies filled with detection machines is money poorly spent.

"Take all that extra money and put it on investigation, intelligence, emergency response; stuff that would work regardless of the plot," says Schneier. Schneier cites the case of the liquid bombers in London. "They were caught, not because they were trying to smuggle liquids onto an airplane. They were caught by investigation and intelligence," he says. "So whether they were using liquids or gases or solids or attacking airplanes or buses or schools, it didn't matter. They were caught," long before they got near an airport.

I think Schneier's point is spot on. Secure Flight doesn't make the bad guy list any better. It just makes everyone spend more money, and creates more inconvenience. Even if our no fly list contained every terrorist in the world, what about all the new recruits they are bringing on every day? No list can catch them if they haven't done anything yet. That makes intelligence gathering all the more important to uncover these threats before it's too late.

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Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at