WASHINGTON — Infants have been stopped from boarding planes at airports throughout the United States because their names are the same as or similar to those of possible terrorists on the government's "no-fly" list.
It sounds like a joke, but it's not funny to parents who miss flights while scrambling to have babies' passports and other documents faxed.
Ingrid Sanden's 1-year-old daughter was stopped in Phoenix before boarding a flight home to Washington at Thanksgiving.
"I completely understand the war on terrorism, and I completely understand people wanting to be safe when they fly," Sanden said. "But focusing the target a little bit is probably a better use of resources."
The government's list of people who are either barred from flying or require extra scrutiny before being allowed to board airplanes grew markedly since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union say the government doesn't provide enough information about the people on the lists, so innocent passengers can be caught up in the security sweep if they happen to have the same name as someone on the lists.
That can happen even if the person happens to be an infant like Sanden's daughter. (Children under 2 don't need tickets but Sanden purchased one for her daughter to ensure she had a seat.)
"It was bizarre," Sanden said. "I was hugely pregnant, and I was like, 'We look really threatening.' "
Sarah Zapolsky and her husband had a similar experience last month while departing from Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. An airline ticket agent told them their 11-month-old son was on the government list.
They were able to board their flight after ticket agents took half an hour to fax her son's passport and fill out paperwork.
"I understand that security is important," Zapolsky said. "But if they're just guessing, and we have to give up our passport to prove that our 11-month-old is not a terrorist, it's a waste of their time."
Sanden and Zapolsky would not allow their children's names to be used in this story because they feared people who preyed on children.
Well-known people like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and David Nelson, who starred in the sitcom "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," also have been stopped at airports because their names match those on the lists.
The government has sought to improve its process for checking passengers since Sept. 11.
The first attempt was scuttled because of fears the government would have access to too much personal information. A new version, called Secure Flight, is being crafted.
But for now, airlines are required to check passengers' names against those supplied by the government.