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Americans’ readiness for Real ID in doubt as 2020 deadline nears

Nearly 40% of Americans don't have a Real ID or any of the other forms of identification that will be required at airport security checkpoints as of Oct. 1, 2020, according to a survey by the U.S. Travel Association.

As of Oct. 1, 2020, air travelers in the United States will be required to have a valid Real ID-compliant driver's license, passport, or military ID to board commercial flights.
As of Oct. 1, 2020, air travelers in the United States will be required to have a valid Real ID-compliant driver's license, passport, or military ID to board commercial flights.Read moreDepartment of Homeland Security (custom credit)

Americans are nowhere near ready for full implementation of the Real ID Act, set to take affect at U.S. airports a year from now, according to a new survey by the U.S. Travel Association.

Nearly 40% of Americans don't have a Real ID or any of the other forms of identification that will be required at airport security checkpoints as of Oct. 1, 2020, according to the survey.

Additionally, 57% of Americans are not aware that as of that date, only driver's licenses that meet federal Real ID requirements will be accepted for boarding commercial flights.

The group surveyed 1,000 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3%.

"America is not Real ID ready and that's a big concern," said Erik Hansen, vice president of government relations at the U.S. Travel Association, a non-profit organization representing all components of the travel industry. Millions of people could be barred from boarding their flights because they lack the required identification, he said.

Travelers will be able to use such other credentials as a U.S. passport or a military ID, but only about 42% of Americans have a U.S. passport, compared with nearly 90% of U.S. residents of driving-age who have a license. Most license holders don't have a Real ID license, which is generally identifiable by a star in the upper-right corner.

States have been scrambling to comply with the 2005 domestic security program known as the Real ID Act, which was designed to help prevent terrorist attacks and reduce the number of licenses granted to undocumented immigrants. States are mandated to issue IDs with counterfeit-resistant security features, and applicants must provide several documents proving their identity and legal U.S. residency.

Most states are in the early phases of issuing the new security-enhanced licenses and identification cards and scrambling to issue millions of them by the deadline. Some states, including Virginia and Minnesota, are reporting that as few as 10 percent of their residents have the new identification.

Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia are in full compliance with the program, meaning they are issuing Real IDs, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Oklahoma, Oregon, and New Jersey, as well as the territories of American Samoa and Northern Mariana Islands are not compliant, though federal officials say they anticipate they will be in the next year.

New Jersey began issuing Real IDs this month and is in the process of receiving full compliance certification by the Department of Homeland Security. Residents in Oregon and Oklahoma will not be able to get Real ID credentials until mid-2020.

The lack of compliance and awareness about the deadline could result in major disruptions at U.S. airports and be catastrophic for the U.S. economy, travel industry experts say.

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that more than 70,000 people could be prevented from flying on the first day of implementation and up to half a million people the first week, based on the current numbers.

"That would mean upward of $40 million per day in economic impact and that could balloon to hundreds of millions of dollars in the first week alone," Hansen said.

The figures include money the impacted travelers would have spent during their trip.

TSA maintains that agents will begin enforcing the air travel provision at security checkpoints on Oct. 1 of next year as planned, turning away passengers who don't have an acceptable form of identification. The heaviest air travel period of each year begins in November, around Thanksgiving, with many infrequent fliers who do not hold passports.

"It seems to me citizens are going to be caught by surprise and [will be] outraged just about a year from now if suddenly they can't board a plane," Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) said at a congressional oversight hearing in September.

"We need to heighten awareness about this," said Wicker, who chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has oversight of TSA. "Most people don't have a passport and most people are not in the military. … So it is going to be that driver's license, nine times out of 10."

Patricia Cogswell, acting deputy administrator for the TSA, said the agency will be putting up more signage about the deadline and talking directly to individual passengers at security checkpoints about whether their ID meets the new requirements.

"We want to make sure everyone has the maximum amount of time they can to obtain either a Real ID-compliant document or other acceptable form of identification such as a passport or military identification," Cogswell said at the hearing.

The process has been difficult. State motor vehicle administrations have encountered challenges ranging from computer system glitches to long lines of applicants to people seeking to get the Real ID but who are unable to provide the required documentation, such as an original Social Security card.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the states that offer both Real ID and standard licenses, a practice that federal officials say creates confusion. In about a half-dozen states, including California, the rollout has been plagued by technical glitches. A miscommunication between Maryland and DHS resulted in the state issuing Real ID licenses that turned out to not compliant. The licenses are being recalled.

The U.S. Travel Association wants Congress and DHS to make some policy changes and update the Real ID Act to make the process easier for states and residents. As a first step, the group says, the government should eliminate the in-person application requirement to help reduce backlogs at motor vehicle administration offices.

They also want the government to come up with alternative screening procedures that can be used to clear passengers that do not have a Real ID come Oct. 1, 2020. For example, travelers enrolled in programs such as TSA PreCheck, who have already gone through a thorough screening process, should be able to go through checkpoints even if they don't have a Real ID, the group says. As many as 20 percent of travelers nationwide are enrolled in PreCheck, according to TSA.

Additionally, the travel association is urging the government to embrace technology available to allow digital Real ID-compliant driver's licenses and automated identity verification at TSA checkpoints to increase checkpoint efficiency and reduce the number of people who would otherwise arrive at the airport without the accepted identification.

"We can improve secure identity without turning away hundreds of thousands or millions of people," Hansen said. And the technology that exists today, which didn't when the Real ID Act was passed, can facilitate that, he said.

Among those is the widespread use of mobile boarding passes and biometric technology that allow identities to be verified electronically. The Global Entry and TSA PreCheck programs were not established in 2005, nor were private-sector programs such as Clear, which verifies a traveler's identity through fingerprints and eye scans.

A spokesperson for DHS said in an email the agency "is looking into potential ways to streamline the Real ID issuance process and is meeting with interested states to discuss what might be possible either now or in the future."

Based on the travel group’s survey, most Americans support government action to reduce the problems posed by the Real ID implementation. Only 29 percent said the deadline should be enforced without any exemptions. The survey also found that only 16 percent of Americans were certain of having a Real ID license because a star appeared in the upper-right corner of their license.

Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles:

New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission: