The biggest lie you’ll hear at the airport

<Insert bad joke about on-time flight here>

But seriously folks, the most common lie you’ll hear at the airport these days is that you are required to show some form of ID to the TSA in order to pass through the security screening checkpoint. The TSA has spent enormous amounts of energy publicizing this lie. The good news is that they seem to be coming around, finally. In fact, checking the TSA web page it seems that they’ve backed off on the insistence (highlighting mine):

Of course, this hasn’t stopped them from demanding ID from every passenger who passes through security every day, but you do not have to show ID if you don’t want to. Some folks have even gone so far as to get their congressmen involved in the discussion. Ultimately the Senator was able to get a Federal Judge TSA lackey involved resulting in this letter (PDF) being produced. One of the most salient points is this one:

“TSA has statutory authority to establish such a requirement. To date, TSA has not implemented this authority.” And while we can debate the validity of the statutory authority as a constitutional issue some other time, it will likely never actually make it to a court decision, since the TSA has not implemented the rule. More importantly, the TSA is almost certainly never going to implement the rule. Otherwise anyone who loses their wallet will never be allowed to fly back home. And the TSA is dumb, but they aren’t that dumb. Still, right there in plain English the answer is spelled out. The TSA cannot require ID from a passenger as a condition for passing through the security checkpoint.

Naturally the question arises, “What happens if you don’t?” Surprisingly, the answer is very little. As noted in the capture above, it results in “additional screening.” And the additional screening is basically them taking all your bags, swabbing them with the Explosive Trace Detection machine and letting you go on your merry way. If you’ve ever had the “SSSS” notation on your boarding pass it is the same exact process. It really isn’t that big a deal. And at some airports having the “SSSS” designation gets you assigned to a dedicated line to deal with the special passengers, so the total processing time may actually be shorter! Assuming you don’t set off the metal detector when you walk through it, the additional screening shouldn’t take more than a couple minutes to happen.

I pass through the security checkpoints without showing ID on a regular basis. Sometimes it goes more smoothly than others, though last weekend both the Newark and Jacksonville, FL checkpoints were probably the smoothest I’ve ever had. One interesting issue arose in Newark when the TSA guy checking IDs went to fill out the “incident report” about me. The second line on the page, right after the one that claims the document is “Sensitive Security Information,” very clearly states “No personally identifiable information” is to be recorded on the form. The reason for this is that, among the many laws the Department of Homeland Security (TSA’s parent org) has decided don’t really apply to them, they’ve also decided that they don’t really want to abide by the Privacy Act either. So by not taking down any personal information they don’t have to deal with Privacy Act issues. That’s great, except for when the TSA guy started writing down my name from my boarding pass. I stopped him and he crossed it off the form, but I do wonder what their training is regarding the forms. There isn’t a place for the passenger name on the form, but this is the third time someone has tried to write it down. Someone higher up is training these guys to write down the names, even though they aren’t supposed to be.

Read the PDF I linked to above, and next time you’re passing through the airport just remember these words: “I choose not to show my ID.” You don’t have to lie (“I don’t have any ID”) but you also are under no obligation to show ID to the TSA, and there is nothing they can do about your choice, other than to refer you to a secondary screening.

And for those of you wondering why I choose to not show ID, the answer is pretty simple: Showing ID does absolutely nothing to improve the security of the airspace. If the TSA is doing their job correctly then the metal detector and x-ray machines are going to detect any weapons. It doesn’t matter who boards a plane if they don’t have any weapons, so matching my name to my boarding pass actually does nothing to improve security. It does make some people think that they are more safe, but there’s no real security being added. Perhaps if they stopped focusing on catching people with fake IDs and started using the resources to do something that contributed to security (cargo screening, for instance), there would be an actual improvement in security, rather than just the appearance of such.

UPDATE (4.28.08 9:20a) – Apparently I gave the TSA too much credit for fixing the “required” parts of their web page. A new release out today has “required” in it again, as well as new restrictions on what types of IDs you’re not actually required to show. From the webpage:

Beginning on May 26, 2008, adult passengers (over the age of 18) will be required to show a U.S. federal or state-issued photo ID that contains the following…

which is followed further down on the page with:

After May 26, passengers who do not present an acceptable ID may be subject to additional screening.

And so the TSA is at it again, “requiring” ID that isn’t actually required. Thanks guys.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.