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Real ID, Later Rather Than Sooner

The Westchester County Airport in West Harrison, New York – colloquially called the “White Plains” airport for the larger nearby city – is a small and usually somewhat sleepy place, despite its one central and overcrowded waiting room.

The airport is convenient for travelers in the suburbs north of New York City who want to catch a domestic flight to many destinations in the Eastern and Midwestern states. It allows them to avoid the bedlam of the three major NYC metropolitan airports, which have a richly deserved reputation for making passengers miserable. (The Wall Street Journal named them the two worst large U.S. airports and the worst midsize U.S. airport this year; popular travel blog The Points Guy ranked all three dead last in 2018, though they’ve inched up the rankings since.) The Westchester terminal has but a single baggage carousel, one security entrance point, and just four boarding doors leading to eight gates.

Based on what I saw there last Monday, on Veterans Day, I am looking ahead to next October with considerable trepidation.

I rolled up to the airport in an Uber before 6 a.m. to catch a 7 o’clock nonstop flight on JetBlue to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is always a busy time at HPN, the airport code by which Westchester is known. To minimize noise in the leafy residential districts near the airport, airlines do not schedule arrivals or departures there between midnight and 6:30 a.m. Flights sometimes arrive late, but the last aircraft into the airport in the evening are the first ones to get filled in the morning.

Something had obviously gone awry the Monday morning in question. The JetBlue check-in line, normally so fast that the airline does not even staff a separate counter for frequent-flier Mosaic members like me, was backed up far into the terminal. Agents had to resort to pulling travelers from the back of the line so that they could make the first outbound flight, which was heading to Fort Myers, on Florida’s west coast. Then they started pulling people from my flight to the head of the line.

Once checked in, travelers confronted another lengthy line to the security checkpoint. There, my Mosaic status got me a shortcut, which in turn helped me make it to my gate just as my flight was beginning to board. I could hear JetBlue calling the names of some passengers for last-minute boarding on the Fort Myers flight. Those travelers were probably stuck in that security line. They may not have made it onto their plane before the doors closed.

All this on a pretty normal travel day, atypical only because it was a legal holiday for most schools and government offices, as well as for some private businesses. It made me wonder what will happen in just over 10 months, when the driver’s licenses many people now carry to get through security no longer work for that purpose because they do not meet federal Real ID requirements.

I am not only worried about Oct. 1, 2020 at small airports like HPN. That day is apt to be a nightmare at terminals across the land, from quiet outposts to major gateways like Atlanta, Los Angeles and, of course, New York’s big three: Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty.

Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005, acting on a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission that the federal government set standards for identification documents. To preserve a level of state sovereignty, the law does not mandate that states issue Real ID compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards by default. States must, however, have a mechanism for issuing Real ID documents for residents who want them. The law also will require Real ID documents in order to board federally regulated commercial aircraft once the law takes effect. (Travelers under 18 will not have to show identification as long as they are traveling with an adult companion.)

The law’s rollout, initially slated for 2008, has been postponed many times. Several states passed laws saying they would not comply, whether due to privacy concerns or objections to a federal agency determining state ID requirements. While the Department of Homeland Security initially granted extensions, the DHS and legislators have said there will be no further delays. Oct. 1 will be the day Real ID becomes the law of the land.

Some people are already in good shape for this rollout. U.S. passport holders, for example, can use their passports for any situation in which they would need a Real ID, including boarding a domestic flight. (Global Entry program documents will also work, as will the “enhanced” drivers licenses some states issue that allow bearers to pass into Canada or Mexico.) I have a valid passport and usually carry it with me even on domestic travel, just in case I misplace my Florida driver’s license. That license, issued in 2008 and renewed in 2014, is valid until 2022, but is not compliant with the new law. I have the choice of visiting a county office to get a new license sometime before Oct. 1 or relying on my passport until my next renewal date.

Whether I renew early or on time, my new Florida license will be Real ID-compliant. Many people who have renewed their licenses already have a star that indicates they have proven their identity sufficiently for federal purposes. But travelers who live outside of Florida may not have gotten their stars so painlessly. Most states now comply with the law’s standards, though at this writing New Jersey is still under review and Oregon and Oklahoma remain under extensions. But even in compliant states, rollout has been uneven. In some places, such as New York, unless residents actively opt into securing a Real ID the state will continue to issue a noncompliant license or ID card (with the note “not for federal purposes” in the corner). Others, including California and Maryland, have had to recertify residents due to miscommunications over federal requirements and recordkeeping.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, 99 million Americans still lack Real ID-compliant identification. Some may plan to rely on passports, though only 42% of Americans have one. For the rest, it is likely to become an increasingly frantic scramble to meet requirements before October. This is not to mention the hapless travelers who will turn up on or after Oct. 1 and find themselves unable to board their flights.

Securing a Real ID isn’t mandatory, and some people never fly. But air travel is not the only concern. The new ID requirements will apply not only to Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, but to all nuclear power plants and many federal buildings as well. Having recently completed jury service – albeit at a Florida state court, not in federal court – I wonder what will happen when prospective jurors or others who have business in a federal courthouse show up without a compliant ID. Will courts automatically excuse these individuals for failing to appear? Will courthouses be less secure than other federal installations? Is Real ID mandatory in practice for all citizens or residents of this country, even though lawmakers packaged it merely as a prerequisite for travel or other purported privileges?

I am not arguing for another postponement of the law, nor for its scrapping. There are valid security reasons for having it, which the 9/11 investigators identified. Perhaps in due course, it can be superseded by fingerprint readers, iris scans or other technology. DHS might want to consult Disney or other theme park operators; lately when I visit those venues, it feels as though my identification is checked more often and more thoroughly than when I board a plane anywhere in the world.

But there will be an adjustment period, no matter what new rules are applied or when. Right now it looks like there will be considerable turbulence at the airports next October.

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