A Saskatoon man is fed up with being stopped every time he tries to fly within Canada — mistakenly flagged as a security threat — because he has a similar name to someone on a no-fly list.
"I feel I am either a second- or third-class citizen," said Ahmad Ali, a Canadian citizen. "They are humiliating me…and not catching the right guy."
Ali is a programmer and analyst with the University of Saskatchewan who said he’s been delayed a dozen times boarding flights since 2008. He said the RCMP told him there is a similar name to his on a watch list.
"Your name is in there…and you don’t even know what these lists are," said Ali.
The RCMP gave him written clearance to show he has no criminal record, which he said no one with the airlines is interested in seeing. Transport Canada confirmed he is not on its official no-fly list, known as "Passenger Protect."
American authorities granted him a Nexus card to enter the U.S. and he said he has no trouble boarding flights with U.S. airlines.
However, when he flies within Canada — on Air Canada and WestJet — Ali said he is still forced to wait at the counter, humiliated, every time he checks in, as staff make phone calls to check him out. He said the airline systems will not allow him to check in online or at a kiosk.
"Imagine," said Ali. "I am not a U.S. citizen and I am free to travel inside the U.S. — even travel to the U.S. from Canada — but for a domestic flight from Saskatoon to Edmonton, I will be stopped to check my name."
A CBC camera recorded Ali as he checked in for an Air Canada flight from Saskatoon to Vancouver. After she scanned his passport, the check-in agent told him, "I have to make a phone call. You won’t like this part."
After five minutes on the phone, the agent checked him in, with no explanation for the delay.
"It’s the same every time,” Ali said. "They will look at you as if you are a criminal until they will have the clearance and then it’s 'OK here you go.'
"Once they take my information of date of birth and country of birth, they know I am not the person [on the watch list].”
Ali and his lawyer sent letters to Air Canada earlier this year, asking the airline to clear his name permanently, but received no response.
WestJet sent a detailed response to his complaint, saying he is not on that airline’s internal list of banned passengers, but it would not confirm or deny if he is on any other list it uses.
That airline told him, "Whether these inhibited check-ins are due to your name being on some type of watchlist…there is little we can do to prevent this happening on future flights."
"I am sure they can resolve it. But they don’t want to resolve it," said Ali.
Ali said he's wasted $3,000 trying to resolve his problem — most of it in legal fees.
"Nothing I can do. Apparently you have to live with it," he said.
Ali is originally from Lebanon and said his name is very common in his local community. There are more than 1,000 people listed on Canada 411 with the name A. Ali. He said he spent considerable time and money adding his middle name to all his documents, but that made no difference.
"Every single Ahmad Ali could have this problem," said Ali. "Definitely, the one Ahmad Ali that might do a bad thing — he has heard about it. He’s not going to come [to board an aircraft] with that name."
A decade after 9/11, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said it’s still hearing similar complaints from Canadians delayed or barred from flying domestically for no good reason.
"People don’t know the difference between the Canadian list, the U.S. list, the use of the U.S. list in Canada and the airline’s own lists," said policy director Micheal Vonn.
She said Air Canada’s own responses to complaints indicate the airline may still be using U.S. watch lists — old and inaccurate — even though U.S. rules aren’t supposed to apply to within Canada.
"It appears Air Canada is using the U.S. no-fly list internally in Canada," said Vonn.
She points to a recent email exchange between the airline and a Canadian man who complained he is having trouble flying within Canada because he is on a U.S. no-fly list by mistake.
The airline told him, "Over 75 per cent of [Air Canada] flights…actually fly over the United States of America. Of the remaining flights, many are to or from airports where the alternate airport (in case of emergency) is situated in the territory of the United States."
The email concludes, "As you are on the U.S. no-fly list, you will not be able to fly Air Canada."
Vonn believes the airline is making up its own policy — not following any government directive that she knows of.
"Even if they fly over U.S. air space, they are not supposed to use the U.S. no-fly list. But it appears that they are."
She believes Ali’s problem may be his name is on outdated U.S. list that Canadian carriers still have in their systems.
"It would appear…he’s a sound-alike name or a duplicate name that it’s coming off an old list. So, not only is it weird that this is happening at all – it doesn’t seem to be related to any kind of security measure that has any efficacy anywhere," said Vonn.
"The fact that he’s got the Nexus card…nobody on the U.S. no-fly list has a Nexus card."
As a result of CBC News inquiries, Air Canada has now responded to Ali’s complaint. The airline told him if he checks in using his Aeroplan number, its system will clear him automatically from now on.
"Once a customer's identity has been confirmed by Air Canada with their specific information and Aeroplan account recorded…they are able to check-in online, on their mobile device, or at a kiosk and there is no longer a need for an agent at the airport to call for clearance," the airline’s statement said.
"We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience that he has experienced in the past, as well as for our delay in responding to his initial query, particularly as there exists a simple solution for individuals in Mr. Ali’s position."
Air Canada declined an on-camera interview and refused to discuss any details of how it uses watch lists.
"Our lists and procedures are kept up to date, in compliance with the requirements of each country. We are not at liberty to discuss details of security measures in order to ensure their continued effectiveness."
Ali says the airline should have a system to clear his name completely, especially given how much time has passed since 9/11.
"After 10 years?” said Ali. “Go and verify what is on your lists — and ask if this is really the list that you want."