A Suspicious Character
Everyone knows that after 911 air travel was never the same. The hassle factor increased tenfold as our government scrambled to keep America safe. As a regular flyer, I welcomed the hightened security - that was, until I discovered just how disruptive life can become when our government gets it wrong.
In 2005 my wife and I arrived at the airport for a flight out of Seattle. I tried to check in using the automatic kiosk, but I received an error message and was instructed to go to the desk. I presented my driver's license and as soon as the attendant typed in my name, her eyes got real big and she mumbled "I'll be right back" and exited to a backroom before I could ask any questions. Five minutes went by, then six, then seven - I looked at my watch, now nervous that we could miss out flight. She finally returned after nearly 10 minutes and said "You are on the no fly list." I replied, "No, someone with the same name is on the no fly list - its a common name - , it's not me." To which she replied "Well, it doesn't matter, I had to call Homeland Security to get your baording pass approved.", which she printed out and handed to me.
For the next two years, I could not check in on line or at a kisok. I had to stand in line to see an attendant, who would sometimes send me to a customer service desk. Sometimes the customer service desk send me back to the first desk.At times, I waited for up to 45 minutes to get a boarding pass, all the while being stared at suspiciously by the staff and other passengers.
I should mention at this point that my name is John Mitchell. I am white and at the time I was the CEO of a 90-bed hospital. But none of this mattered once my name was in a governement data bank.
At the time I was flying about half a dozen times year. So every time I would fly, I had to steel myself to be treated like a second class citizen. There was a process set-up by homeland security where I could submit my brith certificate and get some sort of special waiver from this mess, but I was born in England to an English mother and American father and I had a handwritten birth certificate from another country. The shoe bomber had tried to blow up a plane flying from England and after my experience with the government, I felt I would make it worse for myself if I drew attention to my overseas birth certificate.
At about the two year mark, I was standing at the check-in desk as usual waiting for a boarding pass from an attendant who was on hold at Homeland Security. I had developed a routine where I would just tell the attendant wearily that someone with my name was on the no fly list and an alert was going to come up when they ran my license. An off-duty pilot walked up wearing only a white shirt, but he had his wings on his shirt. The attendant just waived him through. I had an idea! I too had a shirt with wings on it. As a hospital administrator I had helped set-up a Flight for Life program at a hospital in Colorado and in appreciation, the crew had given me a logo short with pilot wings on it. I'd only worn it a few times around the hospital. The next time I flew, I wore my white shirt with red wings and Colorado Flight for Life embossed on it and presto - the attendant saw the wings, winked at me and printed off my baording pass with no delay. It worked!
I was feeling very clever when I took my seat on the plane. After all the passengers were aboard, a female flight attendant walked up, knelt down, put her arm around my shoulders and looked me right in the eye. "We're always so happy when you guys fly with us," she said out loud. I froze when I realized she thought I was something other than a paper pusher. I heard a person in the row behind me say "He's a pilot." I had visions of a medical emergency or a pilot collapse in flight with the announcement "Is there a pilot or paramedic on board?" with all eyes turning to me. I felt if I told her I was just the guy who got gas for the helicopter, I would embarrass her. So I just mumbled "Thank you" and looked at the floor, which she mistook for humility, giving my shoulder a firm squueze. I was very nervous and really glad when that flight was landed with no emergency.
My wife thought this was hysterical when I called her that evening. I wasn't sure what to do, if I should wear the shirt again on my return flight. But the day I was scheduled to fly home, I picked up the complimentry "USA Today" in the hotel and there was a story titled;
"Does this 6-year-old look like a terrorist?
Watch list has too many names, snares too many innocent people."
And the name of this little boy and every other person in the story was was John Mitchell. I couldn't believe it! I decided not to wear the shirt again and when I arrived at the airport, I walked right up to a kiosk check-in, put in my credit card and out spit my boarding passes. I guess out of embarrasement about the article, Homeland Secuitry had removed MY name from the No Fly List. It was such a sweet moment to be able to go through a simple process that most every other air traveler took for granted. I did feel bad for all the other peopel with common names who were still on the No Fly List, but since that day I have always had a special place in my heart for USA Today. And I always get a little thrill, like I'm getting away with something, when I use the automatic chek-in at the airport.