Mar 15 2022

How many people fly without REAL-ID?

[Slide from internal TSA presentation, Identity Verification Staffing Support Overview, March 2017, released in response to FOIA request by the Identity Project.]

As of 2016, almost 2,000 people a day were allowed through TSA checkpoints at US airports either without showing any ID at all, or with other forms of ID that the TSA or its contractors initially considered “unacceptable”. 

According to an internal TSA presentation, there were 149,068 calls (an average of 407 per day) for “ID Verification” to the TSA’s ID Verification Call Center (IVCC) in 2016.

The previous year, 2015, there were 112,016 such calls (an average of 306 per day).

Each of these calls presumably corresponds to a person seeking to fly without ID, or with ID that was initially deemed unacceptable by checkpoint staff.

These are just the people who were required to go through the TSA’s “ID verification” questioning for people with no ID. The TSA estimates — based on a smaller sample of incident reports for a 13-day period in February 2016 — that  an additional 1575 people per day are allowed to fly with “other forms of” ID that are initially deemed unacceptable, for a total of just under 2,000 people per day who fly with no ID or unacceptable ID.

These numbers are from records recently released by the Transportation Security Administration in response to one of our Freedom Of Information Act requests.

This is a substantial increase from the most recent figures previously released by the TSA.

In 2008 though 2011, the number of people who tried to fly without ID, or with ID initially deemed unacceptable by checkpoint staff, averaged 77,000 per year (210 per day).

It seems unlikely that such a dramatic increase between 2011 and 201, and again from 2015 to 2016, is the result of a change in travelers’ behavior, or of growing public awareness of the fact that you can fly without any ID.

More likely, the increase in ID verification calls to the IVCC reflects a change in what types of ID are deemed “acceptable” and/or in whether travelers with “unacceptable” ID are (1) allowed to fly on the basis of questioning and/or examination at the checkpoint of other ID (expired ID, student or employee ID, credit cards, frequent flyer or buying club membership cards, etc.), or (2) required to answer questions posed by phone by IVCC staff based on records from the Accurint data brokerage.

The 2016 and 2015 ID verification call counts are part of an internal TSA presentation in 2017 on the implications for IVCC staffing of possible changes in how travelers with ID deemed by the Department of Homeland Security not to be compliant with the REAL-ID Act, or issued by states deemed  not to be compliant, will be dealt with in the future.

The 2017 presentation focuses on “other forms of ID” and on the implications of REAL-ID enforcement policy and ID verification procedures for IVCC call volume and staffing needs.

Will travelers with ID that is not compliant with the REAL-ID Act or is issued by states that are not compliant be prevented categorically from traveling by air? Will they be treated as travelers presenting “other forms of ID”, most of whom have to date been allowed to fly at the discretion of the Federal Security Director or designee on duty at the airport?  Or will checkpoint staff be ordered to call the IVCC to obtain approval for each such traveler?

If the TSA treats flyers with “noncompliant” ID as having no ID at all, and makes them go through the “ID verification” questioning, it will need to expand IVCC capacity many-fold. This is likely to be the reason the TSA has threatened — first in 2016 and again in 2020 — not to let people with ID from “noncompliant” states fly at all, rather than subjecting them to current standard TSA procedures for people seeking to fly without ID.

The TSA records that include the 2015 and 2016 ID verification call counts don’t say what percentage of travelers without ID or with unacceptable ID were eventually allowed to fly. But IVCC call logs for 2008-2011 showed that  98% of such travelers were allowed to fly. We’ve heard nothing to suggest that the approval rate has changed.

The 2015 and 2016 IVCC call counts were included in the TSA’s munged and incomplete response to a request we made five years ago under the Freedom Of Information Act.

In 2016, the TSA published a notice in the Federal Register that it intended to seek approval for a form, TSA Form 415, that it has been using illegally since 2008, without the required approvals, to collect information from travelers without ID. The notice also suggested that travelers from states deemed not to be compliant with the REAL-ID act might be prevented from flying, although the notice did not make clear the legal basis for this action.

After taking comments on its proposal, the TSA went silent for the next several years about its plans for “ID verification” or approval of Form 415. To find out what was going on, we requested all TSA records about the the proposal including the complete “administrative record” of supporting documents and public comments.

The TSA took five years to respond to our FOIA request. Following its standard (illegal) operating procedure, the TSA FOIA office substituted newly-created rasterized  PDF files of screenshots, with random pagination and sequencing, for archived email files.

Attachments to email messages, including the responses to our comments, a Privacy Threshold Analysis, and the proposed ID verification form, were withheld without explanation. The TSA found and released a copy of their 2008 blog post that provided the first “official” notice  of the ID verification questioning and form. But the TSA released none of the comments — many of which were moderated out and never published — which were submitted by the public in response to that and subsequent related posts in the TSA’s blog.

The most recently released records show that the TSA was working toward a self-imposed internal deadline in June 2017 to publish a follow-up Federal Register notice and submit a revised version of Form 415 to the office of Management and Budget (OMB) for approval. For undisclosed reasons, that didn’t happen. In January 2018, a TSA staffer who asked about the project was told it was “not going forward”. We still don’t know why.

The TSA restarted the process two years later, in March 2020. But instead of responding to our comments or the other objections that were raised in response to its 2016 proposal, the TSA  published a new “initial” notice of intent to seek approval from OMB for Form 415. We resubmitted our objections, joined by nine other organizations concerned with freedom of travel, identification, privacy, human rights, and civil liberties.

Two more years after that, the TSA has neither responded to ours or any of the other public comments, nor given any indication of whether or when it  plans to do so. The TSA has said it plans to start “enforcement” of the REAL-ID Act at airports in May 2023. But we still don’t know what the TSA really means by that threat, or how it plans to carry it out.

In the meantime, hundreds of people in the US continue to fly without ID every day.