Air travel without ID.

Trei, Peter ptrei at
Fri Aug 27 11:03:58 PDT 2004

[For IP, if you wish - pt]

>From RISKS 23.50:


U.S. air travel without government identification

<Dan Wallach <dwallach at>>
Thu, 19 Aug 2004 19:41:02 -0500

Recently, John Gilmore has been publicly decrying the unstated Federal
requirement that one must present government-issued identification
(e.g., a
driver's license) in order to travel via air within the U.S.
for me, I got to test this requirement on a recent trip to give a talk
Fermilab when I managed to leave my driver's license at home.  Here's

For what it's worth, I've recently taken to carrying two wallets.  The
one has my money, credit cards, receipts, and other assorted junk.  The
small one has my business cards and the two ID cards I most often need:
driver's license and my university ID card (a magstripe card that I
need to
get into my building after hours).  In order to make my flight at the
ungodly hour of 7:35am, I had to get up quite early.  In the confusion
the morning, I managed to leave the little wallet at home.  I didn't
this oversight until I was standing in front of the ticket counter at
7:00am.  In order to have gotten my driver's license, I would have had
miss my flight.  Instead, I decided to see how the system would work

== Intercontinental Airport: Houston, Texas

I pleaded my case to the Continental ticket agent.  "Do you have any
ID on you at all?"  Nope.  I showed her my Continental frequent flyer
my credit card, and my social security card (which I probably shouldn't
had in my wallet, but that's a story for another day) as well as my
pass, printed that morning on my home computer.  She escorted me to the
security guard, with all my cards in her hand, and briefly described the
situation.  The guards expressed some confusion, but decided to let me
through.  After that, everything proceeded normally.

== Fermilab: Suburban Chicago, Illinois

My hosts at Fermilab had helpfully arranged a rental car for me.  It
on me that I'd never get out of the rental car lot without a driver's
license.  I called Fermilab's travel agent and explained my
predicament.  As
it turns out, Fermilab has a limo service that they regularly use.  The
travel agent made a reservation for me with the limo service, who
picked me up at the airport and delivered me to Fermilab.

If you're into high-energy physics, you know all about Fermilab.  For
rest of us, they have a ring, about 1km in radius, around which they
protons and anti-protons at very high energies, arranging for them to
collide inside a massive detector.  Those high-energy collisions cause
sorts of interesting subatomic particles to come flying out, hopefully
to be
detected by a variety of impressive devices.  (My high school physics
teacher quipped that it's like trying to learn how cars work by smashing
them together and seeing what falls out.)  Before September 11, the
campus was wide open, and the locals could go fishing in the lake,
around the ring, and so forth.  These days, you have to go to a guard

Visitors get a limited pass and are instructed to only go to specific
where they're allowed (e.g., the education center).  I'd been told that
badge would be waiting for me.  The guard asked for my ID.  "Let me
tell you
a story," I began.  Ultimately, the guard had to telephone my hosts who
drove down to the guard shack to pick me up.  After that, it was smooth

== O'Hare Airport: Chicago, Illinois

Everybody to whom I'd told this story was amazed that I'd gotten as far
as I
did, and I was repeatedly warned that O'Hare security was quite
Just to make sure, I had the limo get me to the airport a full two hours
before my 11:00am flight.  I printed out my boarding pass using the
Continental kiosk, using my credit card to authenticate myself to the
system, and then explained my story to the ticket agent.  "Do you have
government issued ID?"  Sorry, no.  She wrote "SSSS" in big letters on
boarding pass, highlighted it in pink, and pointed me at the security
checkpoint: the special security checkpoint without a line in front of
I walked up and presented my boarding pass to the guard. "ID?"  I began
story, but the only phrase that seemed to matter was "No ID", which she
wrote onto my boarding pass.  She then wrote "SSSS" again and circled
also circling the original pink-highlighted copy.  On I went.  First the
normal X-ray machine, take your laptop out, etc.  Then, on the other
they gave me the extended treatment, which normally occurs when I've
"randomly" selected.  They X-rayed my shoes, swabbed my laptop for
explosives, and unzipped every compartment of my luggage.  After I
all of those tests, they let me through, never once examining any of the
cards I had in my wallet.

Moral of the story

While my story is hardly the same thing as a conclusive examination of
policies of all major U.S. airports, my experience shows that it is,
possible to do interstate air travel without a driver's license.
You're no
longer using the "fast path" of the airport security apparatus, and
there is
clearly some variation in how the rules govern your slow path through
system.  However, if you're willing to put up with the "SSSS" treatment,
then it appears that you can legally travel by air within the U.S.
without a
government-issued ID.  (Gilmore acknowledges this in his lawsuit, which
focused on finding out where the requirement for presenting ID came
from, in
the first place.)


As a Continental frequent flyer, I was invited to show up at the
airport to
be measured for a new biometric-based system that they've installed in
Houston. (I think it measures fingerprints, but I'm not entirely sure.)
was out of town, and thus unable to give that system a shot.  They do
require several forms of ID to get yourself registered, so it will have
wait for another day.  Maybe I'll give it a try and write something
about it
later for RISKS.  For all the known issues with biometric
it's quite difficult to leave your fingerprints at home in the wrong

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