Coming soon: A day 99 million Americans could no longer fly. Time to act on REAL ID

The freedom to travel is a recognized constitutionally protected right that’s easy to take for granted. But less than a year from today, an estimated 99 million Americans could suddenly find that they are no longer able to fly — at least until they get a specific type of identification.

On October 1, 2020, the Transportation Security Administration will no longer accept driver’s licenses that do not meet the requirements of the REAL ID Act, a 2005 law that set minimum security standards for state-issued identifications. Anyone without a “REAL ID” license or an accepted alternative, like a U.S. passport, will not be permitted to fly.

Here’s the problem: Millions of Americans do not yet have a REAL ID and most Americans have no idea they’ll need one in order to board a plane.

Roger Dow is president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association

Roger Dow is president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association (U.S. Travel Association)

According to a survey by Longwoods International, a market research consultancy, an estimated 184 million Americans (72%) either don’t have a REAL ID or are unsure if they do. Approximately 99 million Americans (39%) say they don’t have any form of identification that will be accepted starting October 1, 2020. Overall, only 16% of respondents could definitively say they have a REAL ID.

Equally alarming: most Americans (57%) are unaware that starting October 1, 2020, they’ll need a REAL ID license or an acceptable alternative to fly.

Unless these numbers improve, the disruption to daily life and our economy will be significant. According to the U.S. Travel Association, if REAL ID were enforced today, an estimated 78,500 passengers would be denied boarding on the first day, causing $40.3 million in economic damage. If the trend continued, more than half a million (549,500) flyers would be turned away during the first week, with an economic price tag of $282 million.

If we want to avoid chaos in our airports, it will require all of us—travelers, industry, states, security officials and Congress—to act.

The travel industry is prepared to do its part. The U.S. Travel Association is organizing hotels, car rental companies, cruise lines, airports and industry groups to launch an aggressive public education campaign about REAL ID. By sharing information at hotel front desks, through customer loyalty programs, via social media, and more, we’ll do whatever we can to make sure more people know about the upcoming deadline and how to prepare.

It’s also time for you and your family to figure out if you have REAL IDs and, if not, make plans to get them.

The easiest way to tell is to check for a star in the top right corner of your driver’s license, which is the best indicator of a REAL ID. But even that’s not perfect: Washington state does not use a star. Millions of Californians and Marylanders received licenses with a star, but were then told they needed to go back to the DMV and provide additional documents. Oregon and Oklahoma won’t begin issuing REAL IDs until 2020. So the best way to know for sure is to check with your DMV or review TSA’s list of acceptable REAL ID alternatives.

Realistically, though, we can’t solve this problem by trying to get 184 million Americans to visit a DMV by next October. And rushing to get everyone a REAL ID is like racing to catch up with the past.

The world has changed since 2005, but the REAL ID Act and its requirements look the same. Programs like TSA Precheck and CLEAR now conduct better security vetting than what’s required to get a REAL ID. Boarding passes are now digitally stored on smartphones, while REAL ID licenses are plastic cards stored in wallets.

Congress should act to make Precheck enrollment equivalent to getting a REAL ID; permit states to develop online applications and issue digital licenses; and transition identity verification away from plastic cards and blank stares to automated identity recognition and quicker lines.

Air travel is simply too important for keeping our country competitive, connected and thriving not to take the REAL ID deadline seriously. Assuming the deadline will be extended is not a viable strategy. Through public education and smart policy changes, America can finally be REAL ID-ready. And, if we do it right, we can make travel safer, more secure, and better prepared for future challenges.

Roger Dow is president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Travel Association

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