Checking in at the airport for a business trip to Chicago last week, Michael Patrick O'Brien braced himself for a frustrating experience that has become all too routine.
Handing his driver's license and airline ticket to the agent at the check-in counter, he buried his forehead into his right palm and rolled his eyes in quiet resignation when the agent uttered the phrase that has come to haunt O'Brien: "I need to clear a no-fly."
A frequent flier who took about a dozen business trips in the past year, O'Brien, 37, of Hampstead has the misfortune of having a name that is identical to, or similar to, someone on the government's terrorist watch list.
Like thousands of other travelers with names that bear an unlucky resemblance to alleged security threats, O'Brien keeps getting flagged at the airport despite assurances that the problem has been resolved by the Transportation Security Administration, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
"TSA told me I was off the list," he told the ticket agent at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.
But in a response that sounded like a riddle, the agent said, "You proved you're not the person on the list, but that doesn't mean your name comes off."
He can't use the online check-in or express check-in at the airport's computerized kiosks, and he can't check in with the skycap.
His co-workers at the advertising and public relations firm in Owings Mills where he is an executive vice president cringe at the thought of his booking their group flights because it means they all must check in the old-fashioned way with a ticket agent.
"I've become a leper," he said.
Following the government's procedure, he filled out and mailed a Passenger Identity Verification Form with information to prove he was not the person on the list.
About two weeks after he mailed the form with the required three pieces of notarized identification, O'Brien eagerly opened a letter from TSA officials.
In part, it read: "Where it has been determined that a correction to records is warranted, these records have been modified to address any delay or denial of boarding that you may have experienced as a result of the watch list screening process."
It didn't help. Because airlines collect information about their passengers differently - one might include a middle initial, and another the whole middle name, for example - the computers automatically flag anyone with a name that resembles one on the watch list.
It is left up to the humiliated passenger, at the ticket gate, to provide proof of distinguishing information, such as age or address, that shows he or she is not the one on the list. This must be done with every flight.
The TSA, which is in charge of passenger security, is trying to fix the problem by developing a uniform program to screen for matches before travelers arrive at the airport. But its completion date is unknown.
The first time he was flagged by an airline because of his name, O'Brien was traveling with his wife and two children - ages 4 and 7 - to Jamaica in April 2005.
He tried to check in at a kiosk, but the computer directed him to a ticket agent for assistance.
"She said, 'You're on the list.' I said, 'What list?' And she said, 'The watch list,'" O'Brien said. "The person behind me in line seemed pretty freaked out. It took half an hour to get me cleared."
The O'Briens were delayed so long that their seats were given away and the plane lacked enough adjacent ones for his family to sit together, he said.
"I'm willing to tolerate some inconvenience for the sake of security, but this doesn't seem very effective," O'Brien said last week before heading to the gate for his flight to Chicago. "The dragnet is catching nearly everyone, so how effective is that?"
The watch list was created in 1990, with a roster of people "determined to pose a direct threat to U.S. civil aviation," according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Web site.
EPIC, a public interest group that focuses on privacy and civil liberties issues, has been using Freedom of Information Act requests to demand information about the list.
But the TSA, citing national security, refuses to disclose the names or even the number of names on the list.
"If people know which names are on the list, it makes the list useless," said TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser.
Activists estimate the number of names on the list at 200,000 to 400,000.
It's no consolation to O'Brien that he is not actually on the no-fly list - which would mean he would be prohibited from flying. He's not even on the government's "selectee" list, which would require him to undergo "secondary screening," such as a pat-down, before he could be cleared to board an aircraft.
He just happens to have a name that in whole or in part matches a name on the watch list, which means he must show photo identification to a ticket agent each time he flies to confirm he is not the person on the list.
The TSA's Kayser said the airlines should not be using the term "no fly" as a generic reference to anyone who must undergo further scrutiny to receive a boarding pass.
"We recognize that the administration of the list is not perfect," he said. "We're working with the airlines to improve the process."
O'Brien said he finds it unbelievable that airline staff are not better informed and trained on how to handle these situations.
"I've had some agents look downright frazzled when my name is flagged," O'Brien said.
"I've had some tell me they're not sure I'm going to be able to fly. I've had a few look completely perplexed about why I can't get my boarding passes, and on and on," he said. "It seems like they should communicate better with ticketing agents so the agents can tell passengers what's going on - accurately - and not make matters worse by over-reacting or calling me a 'no-fly.'"
The TSA has spent nearly $130 million during the past few years creating a program, called Secure Flight, that would expedite traveling for passengers with names that are similar to someone on the watch list, Kayser said.
The program would centralize the screening process by requiring airlines to submit passenger rosters to the TSA, which would check the names against its database for the airlines.
Kayser said that under the current system, which TSA officials acknowledge "is imperfect," airlines run names through the agency's database. But because airlines don't use a uniform software program to screen names, they have varying abilities to differentiate passengers who might have names that are only similar to someone on the watch list.
It is that inability to differentiate that requires airlines to request additional identification from passengers for such details as age and address, Kayser said.
"We do everything we can to make it as efficient as possible, but the airline still needs to verify that the name is the person that TSA has cleared," he said.
To make the process more efficient, the TSA recommends that passengers submit the Passenger Identity Verification Form, something more than 30,000 travelers have done, Kayser said.
For O'Brien, there was little improvement in the situation after he filed the form and got the legalistic response.
"When I flew about three days later, I went to the kiosk. I was so hopeful as I stood there waiting for a [boarding pass] to pop out," he said. Instead, the computer directed him to a ticket agent - as it has ever since.
"There's nothing I can do," he said. "What upsets me the most is the assumption of guilt."
Bethan Brome Liljah knows O'Brien's frustration well.
Liljah, 31, has been flagged by airlines since the Sept. 11 attacks.
About two months ago, when she was traveling alone with her 3-year-old son, an airline worker told her she would need to undergo extra screening because she was on "the list." She said a TSA worker told her that "someone at the FBI must be looking for someone with my name."
Liljah - a photographer who owns a baby-portrait business with her husband, Johnathan - said she and her husband began scouring the Internet for information about the screening system.
What they discovered, including their limited ability to end the extra screening, prompted them to launch an online campaign, called Americans for Terror Watchlist Reform, at terrorwatchlist.org.
"The problem with the list is they're just using names and no other information," she said in a phone interview from her Massachusetts home. "The FBI told me they might be scrambling the letters of my name and end up with variations that match a known terrorist. I want to know why we're using word scramble."
She said she receives e-mails daily from people who have similar troubles traveling - including a pilot who is certified with the Federal Aviation Administration but gets flagged and a soldier in Iraq who is stopped at the airports because he performed U.S. government work in Kuwait.
But what astounded her was finding out that her cousin's husband, Roy Ramos, also gets flagged every time he travels.
"He's a Marine who has traveled with the president on Marine One and Air Force One," she said. "He flew with the first President Bush and for two years with President Clinton. He had Yankee White clearance - the highest level - which took a year to get."
She said what she finds most frustrating is that there is no known process for people to clear their names from the watch list.
"Until there is one, the list will continue to grow until it renders itself completely useless as a law enforcement tool," she said.
But the TSA's Kayser said the size of the list is not a concern.
"On the list, we have individuals who we believe are a threat," he said. "The key is preventing individuals who are a threat from getting on [flights]. To have an arbitrary number for how long this list should be wouldn't help."
But Liljah - who said both sides of her family lost friends in the Sept. 11 attacks and that she understands the need to make air travel safe - worries that while TSA workers are wasting time screening her for the umpteenth time, that a dangerous person could be boarding her next flight.
She said that on a recent trip, three people were flagged for extra screening - her, a uniformed Army soldier and an air marshal. Because she can't find out for sure whether she's on a particular list - the FBI refuses to confirm her status for national security reasons - she has grown increasingly frustrated.
"There's this realization that you don't have the same rights as everyone else," Liljah said. "You become somewhat of a second-class citizen."