What's in a name? Toronto doctor wants answers after being kept off Porter Airlines flight

Flying isn’t any fun for Alia Ali, and she says it’s all because of her name.

Airline 'constrained' by U.S. security protocol that would not clear Dr. Alia Ali to fly home

Toronto physician Alia Ali said she was refused entry on a Porter Airlines flight from Newark, N.J., to Toronto, but nobody at Porter could tell her why. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Flying isn't any fun for Alia Ali, and she says it's all because of her name.

The Toronto physician has come to expect — and accept — longer delays while going through airport security, more questions from border officials, and, generally, a much uglier travelling experience. 

"When I have to fly there's always a bit of panic and anxiety," Ali said in an interview at one of the Toronto clinics where she practices.

"I've accepted that, and I understand why that it is. But what I do not accept is to be completely denied check-in, especially by a Canadian airline."

Ali, a Canadian citizen, was heading home from New York City last Saturday and says she was not allowed to get on her Porter Airlines flight from Newark, N.J., to Toronto.

"I felt very stranded and discriminated against."

Porter 'constrained' by U.S. security

In response to questions from CBC Toronto, the airline said it was "constrained" by United States security protocol.

"Unfortunately, we did not receive a clearance to board Ms. Ali," Porter spokesperson Brad Cicero said in an email.

Ali says she was told by Porter staff at check-in that there was a "security issue." Staff sent her to U.S. customs officials at the airport, who told her there was no security issue and that as a Canadian citizen she was cleared to fly.

But back at the Porter desk, staff still said they couldn't put Ali on the flight or explain why.

10-hour ordeal

Ali says she arrived three hours early for her flight — more than enough time, she thought, to sort out her usual airport snags.

In the end, she spent more than 10 hours at the airport.

"I was very upset. I saw three flights get checked in with no issues. I was the only person that was left there."

When it became clear she wasn't getting on a Porter flight, Ali purchased a seat on a United Airlines flight for $676 US. Her original Porter ticket cost $170 Cdn.

She was able to get through security, check in, and board the United flight without any problems or delays.

While waiting for takeoff, Ali spoke with a Porter supervisor by phone, who she said "laughed" at her story.

Back in Toronto, Ali says she spoke with another Porter supervisor in person but they couldn't tell her why she was kept off her flight.

"I just want answers," she said.

Airline blames Secure Flight system

According to Porter, the problem is related to the Secure Flight screening system operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"We cannot transport the passenger without this clearance [without risking] substantial financial and regulatory penalties," Cicero explained.

The airline, Cicero said, did everything it could to get Ali on the flight.

"Our representatives at the airport, call centre and operations centre made numerous attempts to clear her and move her to different flights, but did not have success."

When this occurs, Cicero said airlines are unable to see why a particular passenger is not getting clearance from the Secure Flight system.

Cicero says Porter refunded Ali for her original ticket and the airline regrets what happened.

Ali is also looking for an apology and compensation for the price difference between her original flight and the one that finally got her home.

"I just don't understand how a Canadian airline refuses [to fly] a Canadian citizen back home."

Porter 'playing it safe'

According to Christian Leuprecht, a security expert and political science professor at the Royal Military College and Queen's University, airlines use several databases to screen passengers, including both the U.S. no-fly list and its Canadian equivalent.

Leuprecht says these systems came into effect "relatively haphazardly" after the Sept. 11 attacks and are prone to flag individuals who should actually be allowed to fly.

Pointing out that he's only speculating, Leuprecht says Porter may have been "overly risk-averse" in blocking Ali from her flight in order to avoid backlash from U.S. authorities.

"I could certainly see a Canadian company, when in doubt, playing it safe, rather than possibly losing what is at the heart of business, which is cross-border Canada-U.S. traffic," he said.

Leuprecht says that, moving forward, passengers should push for more clarity from airlines if they are not able to board a flight.

"Without having clarity on what grounds and [because of] what list the individual was denied boarding, it's difficult to ascertain what may have caused the no-board decision and who made that decision," Leuprecht said.


Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español.