“It’s just a small booking error. You registered him under Mr. instead of Master” said the WestJet agent as he pointed at our six-week-old son, Sebastian, snoring away in his car seat. He was explaining why we had been unable to check-in online for our flight to Saskatoon. Instead, we were at the airport on the wrong side of 5AM to see the agent in person. I was too preoccupied by the stress of our first flight with a baby and the excitement of introducing Sebastian to his prairie family to pay much attention to the delay our “error” had supposedly caused. After about 15 minutes of typing, consulting another agent, and a phone call, we were on our way. Luckily, the actual in-airplane portion of traveling with an infant was not nearly as bad as I had imagined.
Then it happened again. Our travel to Saskatoon suddenly became more frequent with my brother being hospitalized from a serious car accident. Sebastian’s next flight was at 6 months old, and despite using the suggested title of Master for his ticket, we were once again greeted by a red ERROR screen while trying to check-in online. At the airport, we heard a familiar “booking problem” tale (apparently we should have left Sebastian’s title as a blank – which we later confirmed is literally not possible). We were annoyed and a bit exasperated, but once again focused on more important matters. After all, mistakes happen.
After the 3rd and 4th time, we knew something was fishy. We had tried every possibility for booking Sebastian’s ticket and without success. It didn’t matter whether it was Air Canada or WestJet. Yet, we didn’t really know how unusual this problem was. Maybe this was why so many people dreaded flying with children and we were just finding out? I was blissfully unaware that the real reason was a lot more sinister and unbelievable than mere incompetence.
It took a sympathetic WestJet agent (a mother, I’m sure) on a flight in October of 2015 to break protocol and tell us the truth: that our happy, chubby, energetic 18-month-old, Sebastian David Khan, was being flagged by the no-fly list. We were beside ourselves. “This is a joke, right?!” was all I could manage to say. We would later learn that the phone call she was making was not, in fact, to correct a fictitious “booking error,” but to a national security center to confirm that our little guy, who had only started walking 3 months prior, was not a threat to the safety of airplane.
Our disbelief of this new reality was quickly replaced by determination. We had to fix this. After all, now that it was clear that the only terrorizing Sebastian would be doing on-board would involve a brief crying bout or a stinky diaper, surely we could prevent him from being flagged again? However, our call to the airline customer service line was met with denial: “No-fly list? No, that agent must have been confused.” From the airline’s perspective, a mistake had indeed been made: somebody had finally told us the truth. For security reasons, passengers flagged by the no-fly list, unless they are denied boarding, are never to be informed of the reason for their delay. Instead, we were back to being told stories about booking shenanigans – it was our fault. I don't give up that easily, so we played a numbers game. My husband called the customer service line back several times, each time speaking to a different representative and pretending that it was his first call about this problem. After a few more denials (with reasons as ludicrous as “it’s because he’s a baby”) our hopes of reaching another sympathetic soul were met. She confirmed Sebastian’s no-fly list troubles and, in what we thought was a long shot, fulfilled our request to provide confirmation in writing. Despite how serious this issue was, their response read almost comically, with repeated use of the word “baby”:
I have spoken with our Regulatory department and have been advised that your baby's name is a close match to a similar name on one of the governmental watch lists. Because of this we are required to validate your baby's identity in person.
There it was. I was relieved that Sebastian was not indeed a terrorist (that’s sarcasm, by the way) and supposedly just shared a name with one, but that fact didn’t solve our travel troubles. Couldn’t they simply check his birthdate, which we entered at the time of booking, to distinguish toddler from terrorist? In the days that followed we furiously researched everything we could find about the no-fly list. We learned that there wasn’t just one list. Many countries have their own, and while all of our flights had been within Canada, domestic flights are routinely checked against Canadian and U.S. lists. It didn’t help that, in a continued shroud of secrecy, nobody we talked to was allowed to tell us which list Sebastian was on.
The U.S. no-fly list is the far larger and higher profile of the two. It ballooned after 9/11, including the names of many dead people and, as famously documented in a 60 minutes segment, flagged dozens of men with the name Robert Johnson. Fortunately, these mistakes led to the creation of a redress system by the Department of Homeland Security. Applicants can receive an extra travel identifier that prevents them from being flagged on future flights. We immediately submitted an application for Sebastian and went looking for the Canadian equivalent.
The Passenger Protect Program is the sugarcoated name for our Canadian no-fly list and, compared to its U.S. counterpart, it flies under the radar (pardon the pun). It took several bounced e-mails and a game of telephone tag to finally speak to a government official about Sebastian. She regretfully informed us that the program’s mandate was only to provide recourse to passengers who had been denied boarding, which meant: not us. She stated that Sebastian’s secondary checks “will happen to him every time he flies.” We had no recourse. I was stunned that on this issue, the United States was outdoing Canada. As is my habit, when she said she couldn’t provide a reference number for the call, I simply asked for her name and in a continued pattern of bizarre secrecy, she could not even divulge that.
By the end of 2015 we had exhausted most of our options. Neither traveling with a U.S. redress number or a brand new passport helped, so we were certain Sebastian was on the Canadian list. We were in touch with our local MP in the newly elected Liberal government, but as a political rookie transitioning into their first post, their response was predictably stalled. We felt angry and alone.
Sulemaan Ahmed’s tweet, on New Year’s Eve of 2015, was a game-changer. Friends texted me excitedly “Hey! Did you see this? It’s just like Sebastian!” I was immediately sympathetic to the Ahmed family, but also heartened that we weren’t alone. Universally, Canadians were responding to the tweet with messages of support, that flagging a child on the no-fly list was unacceptable. After talking it over with my husband, we decided that despite being private people, if this issue could ever be resolved for Sebastian, this brewing media storm would be the catalyst. The next day, we were accepting media interviews from the Globe & Mail, CBC, Toronto Star, and more.
As we had hoped, the media spotlight prompted a response from the government. Minster of Public Safety Ralph Goodale acknowledged that falsely-flagged children was a real problem and that being subject to extra security checks every time they travel can be “a traumatizing experience” for Canadian families. What we didn’t expect was the flood of inquiries from families in the same boat, all of who thought they were also alone. Within days, we knew of a dozen families that shared our frustration. With my husband’s IT experience and another parent’s social media savvy, we set up a website (noflylistkids.ca) and a twitter account (@NoFlyListKids) as a contact point. We wanted all the affected families to know they were not alone and that together, we could create a positive change; a redress system for travelers falsely flagged on Canada’s no-fly list.
The hope that we felt from our new momentum was tempered by frightening stories. Apparently we had been quite fortunate with our travels because they were within Canada and with Sebastian being so young. Other families, traveling abroad with older children, shared stories of being detained, having passports confiscated, and more. One young man, who was about to turn 18, was fearful of how his treatment would worsen as an adult and hesitant to join his high school classmates on a graduation trip. In an age of increasing security measures and information sharing between nations, I worried about Sebastian’s future mobility.
As time passed, the government continued to say the right things. Minister Goodale stated, “We have to fix this problem” with a sincerity that made us sure a solution was forthcoming. They even created a Passenger Protect Inquiries Office, which took a few weeks to send us a canned response saying, to paraphrase “We’re working on a solution, but it’s not ready yet.” Indeed, the only #RealChange was our growing list of families. Each week, more parents reached out. Every case has its own surprising details: one child’s parent is an airline pilot; another is a Canadian armed forces veteran.
Today, over a year later, #NoFlyListKids consists of 59 families. The real number is undoubtedly much higher, given the secrecy and denials that families encounter. The names on the list are diverse, of all backgrounds, such as Adam Ahmed, Michael Pierre, Harrison Vien, and our son, Sebastian. These families don’t simply face short delays; they face unnecessary discrimination and stress. Although we would like to, we have decided that our family won’t risk traveling internationally with Sebastian until we can clear him from the list. Recent developments south of the border have only confirmed that decision for us. For now, the flights that we continue to make are to Saskatoon, to care for my brother and mother, both of who require round-the-clock attention. Each time we fly and Sebastian is flagged, I pray that this problem will be solved before he’s old enough to understand what’s going on. I don’t want him to feel stigmatized or blame himself for these events. I don’t want him to dread the prospect of traveling by air.
My biggest hope is for a Canadian redress system to be included in the 2017 federal budget. This system would clear the names not only of innocent Canadian children, but any Canadian that is deemed by the government to pose no threat to our security. It would allow us and other families to travel without worry, within Canada and, we hope, internationally. Although we haven’t achieved our goal yet, throughout this journey we have been touched by the support we have received from Canadians across the country. People from across the political spectrum have agreed that repeatedly flagging and screening toddlers and children based on solely their names is wrong. I’m grateful that we live in a country like Canada, where together we can make a real difference to solve this problem. That’s why I’m asking for your help.
Please share our story with your friends and family. A tweet of support for @NoFlyListKids, letting Finance Minister @Bill_Morneau know that this matters to you, goes a long way. Even better, use our provided letter template to join us in asking the government to solve this problem. Thank you so much for listening and safe travels to all.