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05 May 2010

Suspected Bomber on No-fly List But Still Got on a Plane

As many of you know, Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old father of two from Connecticut, has been accused of attempting to set off a bomb in the Times Square area of New York City last Saturday. Two days later, he attempted to leave the US by flying out from JFK Airport on Emirates flight 202, bound for Dubai. The door on the aircraft was closed, and the plane was about to begin its pushback from the jetway when the authorities ordered the plane to return to the gate when Shahzad was taken into custody.

After Shahzad was removed from the aircraft, the aircraft resumed its departure, but as a precaution the crew was ordered to return to the gate so the passengers could be screened by security one more time. This exchange between the crew and ATC was made available by

The good news was that law enforcement and aviation security personnel were able to work together and detain this suspect. In fact, the the investigation into the attempted bombing had evolved very rapidly, with Shahzad being added to the TSA's no-fly list before he attempted to leave the country.

Lapses in airport security

On the surface, the elements were in place to capture this suspect if he tried to get on an airplane. However, that was clearly not the case. At about 12:30 p.m. Monday, seven hours before his flight, Shahzad's name was added to the no-fly list. Emirates Airlines was also notified about an important addition to the no-fly list. However, the airline was only required to check for updates to the list every 24 hours.

He was able to get past the initial TSA security checkpoint and get on an aircraft in spite of being on the 'no-fly' list. Shahzad was caught only after Customs and Border Protection agents reviewed the final passenger list shortly before takeoff.

Although Shahzad was caught before the plane took off, this represents a failure because the intent was for the no-fly list and the rest of the security system to prevent someone like Shahzad from even boarding an aircraft. Perhaps New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has a perspective that is shared by many who hear this story. According to the New York Times, he said, “Clearly the guy was on the plane and shouldn’t have been. We got lucky.”

Two things that can be said about luck is that it is not predictable and is not a substitute for a systematic security process. The US government maintains a number of databases that are used as part of a systematic security process for airline travel. An article from last November described the four most important airline security databases in the US. The most restrictive is the "no-fly" list. As the name implies, this is a list of people who are not allowed to board an airliner.

The problem
The key problem in this situation is that part of the system worked in that a suspect's name was placed on the no-fly list, and accessible to law enforcement, TSA, and the airline. However, having an updated list is next to useless if the groups that are supposed to use the list are not using the list, especially to find a high interest suspect such as Mr. Shahzad.

How to improve the system
The TSA announced today that airlines will now have to review the no-fly list within two hours rather than within 24 hours. However, that may not be enough. would like to know what you think. Please feel free to respond to the survey below. We'll publish the results, and your comments, in a few days.


  1. Airlines should check the no fly list regularly so that individuals who aren't suppose to be on an Airplane are not allowed to fly.

  2. Considering the rate at which our lives currently move, and the easy availability of instantaneous electronic updates, I was really horrified to hear that airlines only have to consult the no-fly list database within 24 hours of any given flight. That's outrageous. I would love to see a system that required them to check the list closer to flight time, and in fact as the _last thing they do_ before the plane is cleared for takeoff.

  3. Seriously? In this day and age this sort of thing should be automated. Computers don't get bored with checking, rechecking, and then doing it again in 5 minutes. There's absolutely no reason the list couldn't be updated before every flight is boarded. My guess, in 5 minutes spam traffic on the internet consumes more bandwidth than if every airline in the US fetched the no-fly list as part of a pre-boarding check. Don't kid yourselves, this is just another case of pure laziness. If not this, then what are all the new taxes I'm paying supposed to do?