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How to avoid being turned away from a US flight: Why an approved Esta is not a guarantee

After the terrible events of 9/11 and subsequent attempted attacks, the US is hypersensitive to the possibility of terrorists hijacking or destroying aircraft

Friday 15 January 2016 11:08 GMT
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Welcoming committee: US border security
Welcoming committee: US border security (AFP/Getty)

Last month, Donald Trump came up with an incendiary idea for tackling terrorism: ban Muslims from entering the United States. Shortly afterwards, a passenger named Mohammad Tariq Mahmood checked in at Gatwick airport with his brother and nine of their children for their holiday flight to Florida.

They had all successfully applied in advance through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or Esta – America's online visa alternative (available at esta.cbp.dhs.gov; price $14 per person).

But the dream trip became a nightmare when they were told that their authorisation to fly had been cancelled. The airline and travel insurers refused to cover their losses.

How could they be granted permission to travel, only to have it revoked at ludicrously short notice? Well, the US Department of Homeland Security specifies: “An approved Esta is not a guarantee of admission to the United States.” A separate sequence of checks is made on all passengers on all flights to the US, which is why you have to provide Advance Passenger Information (API) ahead of departure.

The specific focus of this step is aviation security. After the terrible events of 9/11 and subsequent attempted attacks such as the “Shoe Bomber”, the US is hypersensitive to the possibility of terrorists hijacking or destroying aircraft. So, regardless of your success in obtaining an Esta, the security authorities will check your name and other details against watch lists. If something triggers concern, experience suggests they will err on the side of caution and bar you from boarding.

Some Muslim travellers feel they are unfairly picked out for extra scrutiny. But The Independent has heard from passengers from other backgrounds also denied boarding without explanation or recompense. The only sure way to avoid being turned away from a US-bound flight? Don't try to fly to America.

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