Kids still caught by no-fly lists despite new redress office, parents say

A new federal office says it has "resolved" the cases of 11 children who keep getting stuck at airports because they are falsely matched to a name on a no-fly list. But parents say they have seen no resolution at all, as family travel plans keep getting disrupted by the security snafu.

Parents advised to sign kids up for frequent-flyer programs to help avoid no-fly list mismatches

Families with children whose names are falsely matched to No-Fly lists say they are getting no practical help from a new redress office established by the Liberal government. (Angela MacIvor/CBC)

An office the Liberal government created to help air travellers who are falsely matched to names on so-called no-fly lists says it has "resolved" the cases of 11 children so far.

But parents who registered with the office say that nothing has been done to help their kids, who keep getting stuck at airport check-ins for security reviews.

"When he flies, he still gets stopped," Khadija Cajee, of Markham, Ont., said about her seven-year-old son, Syed Adam Ahmed. "Nothing has changed."

Khadija Cajee, whose seven-year-old son has been falsely matched to a no-fly list, has heard from the families of 55 children facing the same frustrating dilemma. (CBC)
In London, Ont., Heather Harder's son Sebastian David Khan, just two years old, has had problems checking in for flights since he was six weeks old — and registration has not changed that.

Her family will not leave Canada for fear that Sebastian's continuing false matches to no-fly lists could prevent them from returning home, leaving them stranded abroad.

Both parents say the hassles continue, even though they signed up with the Passenger Protect Inquiries Office (PPIO).

The federal office was announced last June with fanfare by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to resolve the no-fly false positives that plague some Canadian travellers when trying to board airplanes.

Creation of the office was meant to fulfil a 2015 Liberal election promise to "require that government review all appeals by Canadians on the no-fly list." That commitment was partly a response to Bill C-51, a Conservative government measure supported by the Liberals that, among other things, widened the criteria for placing people on the list.

Most 'resolved'

Public Safety says the office has received 80 appeals so far, of which 78 have been "resolved" — including the 11 cases involving children under the age of 18. (The two remaining cases are still being reviewed and a further 18 inquiries were deemed to be outside the mandate of the office.)

But the PPIO has no teeth, merely providing advice. "We consider a case resolved when a solution has been provided to the inquirer," said spokeswoman Karine Martel.

The two primary suggestions offered so far are either to contact a U.S.-based office, the Traveller Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP), or to sign up for a loyalty card at Canadian airlines that offer them.

"It is important to note that the PPIO does not advocate on behalf of inquirers and cannot divulge whether someone is listed on a list or not," Martel said.

Canada's no-fly list — officially called the Specified Persons List and dating back to 2007 — has been estimated to contain the names of as many as 2,000 people considered a threat, though government officials refuse to confirm any numbers. (The American Civil Liberties Union has estimated the U.S. no-fly list contains more than a million names.)

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale established the PPIO for people caught in the no-fly security net last June. But the help office largely offers advice and no real solutions are expected until next year. (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

Bill C-51 expanded the definition of threat to include not only potential terrorists intent on bringing down aircraft, but also those flying to locations to support terrorist groups, such as ISIS.

Under Canada's Passenger Protect Program, airlines are not required to check whether the names of travellers under 18 are on any no-fly lists — but some carriers do so anyway.

Public Safety has said the new office by next year will create an in-house database that can assign a unique number to each falsely matched traveller, intended to help end the constant delays at check-in counters.

In the meantime, people who register with the PPIO are told only that the government "is working on a number of measures that, in the future, will help address the issues," according to an email addressed to one applicant and obtained by CBC News.

One person advised that even though he has updated his loyalty profile with Air Canada, he continues to have the same travel difficulties.- Internal report from the Passenger Protect Inquiries Office

The short-term measures include working with airlines "to improve the application of search filters" used by airlines to reduce false matches and establishing a "Redress Working Group" with U.S. officials.

Fifty-four of the 78 "resolved" PPIO cases involved non-Canadian lists, and most are likely matched to the American list.

The office also advises aggrieved travellers to sign up for an airline's loyalty or frequent-flyer program, as this extra registration can sometimes speed check-in processing.

Heather Harder's falsely matched son Sebastian was recently registered for WestJet Rewards before the family flew to Saskatoon in December and there were no delays.

"It worked for that trip," she says. But the family will not risk international travel, and Harder worries whether Sebastian will still have false-match problems when he turns 18 — and the confusion may be more difficult to resolve for an adult than for a child.

50 kids registered

The office has also acknowledged that loyalty programs are no guarantee of a free pass.

"One person advised that even though he has updated his loyalty profile with Air Canada, he continues to have the same travel difficulties," said a July 2016 document obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

Khadija Cajee started a website, NoFlyListKids.ca, to press for changes. It has now registered more than 50 kids who have been falsely matched on no-fly lists. At least two of those kids have since turned 18, raising fears that the mismatch will haunt them through adulthood.

Cajee's list includes names of various ethnic origins, including Chinese and English, but they are "disproportionately Arabic sounding names," she said.

Parents also say the false matches prevent them from pre-selecting seats, from checking in online and force them to show up to the airport an hour earlier than normal to undergo extra security reviews.

Goodale acknowledged in an interview with CBC News that the PPIO is a stop-gap measure, and he's still seeking funding for a permanent electronic solution.

"That's a Band-Aid; it's not a proper solution. We want to fix it for the long term and that takes, unfortunately, some time," he said. "It takes some effort and it takes a very substantial capital investment."


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?