Real ID is a Real Thing and You’ll Need it to Fly (Soon)

Travelers have until October 2020 but shouldn’t wait until the last minute, PennDOT says

By Rick Wills

Published June 10, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


Imagine TSA workers refusing to let you through the security checkpoint en route to your hard-earned vacation.

In less than 18 months, such a costly nightmare could be reality for many people if they don’t get a REAL ID card — a federally mandated form of identification that meets increased security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards.

“You might have a family that saved for a year to go to Disney World being told they can’t go. Or someone who rarely travels and needs to go to a funeral or wedding being told no. We are extremely worried about this kind of thing happening,” said Debbie Bowman, executive director of the Aviation Council of Pennsylvania, which represents 21 airports in the state.

Of air travelers in the United States, 87 percent fly once a year or less, Bowman said. Yet all air travelers will be required to provide either a passport or REAL ID in order to fly after Oct. 1, 2020.

“There probably are many people unaware or only vaguely aware of the REAL ID requirement,” she said.

Getting the ID is a somewhat cumbersome process that requires submitting an original birth certificate or passport, a social security card, proof of residency and documentation of any name changes.

So far, Pennsylvanians seem to be in no particular rush to obtain REAL ID, according to state authorities, who worry about air travelers either missing the deadline altogether or scrambling to get documents a year or more from now.

There is a one-time $30 fee for REAL ID.

REAL ID is not necessarily the same thing as Pennsylvania’s redesigned driver’s licenses – REAL ID has a star in the top right corner; regular licenses do not.

Congress passed the REAL ID law in 2005, prompted by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The new cards are required for federal purposes; in addition to flights, you’ll need REAL ID to enter federal buildings (excluding federal courts) or to gain entry to military bases.

The aviation council is asking the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for a $130,000 grant to target flyers through social and electronic media.

“We have been reaching out to airlines so that we can contact frequent flyers and people who have bought airline tickets online,” Bowman said.

In Southwestern Pennsylvania, the only place to get a REAL ID the same day is the Bridgeville PennDOT Driver’s License Center. Other PennDOT centers take applications and will mail REAL IDs within 15 days.

At a Driver’s License Center, you’ll be asked to opt in to REAL ID, similar to the way you choose to become an organ donor.

PennDOT expects 2.5 million people to apply for REAL ID — about a quarter of the state’s licensed drivers. So far, 170,000 have been processed and more than 200,000 have submitted paperwork – fewer than 15 percent of the people the state expects will need REAL ID.

Vince Gastgeb, vice president of government and community affairs for Pittsburgh International Airport, wonders whether the state’s 2.5 million figure is adequate.

PennDOT reached its number after talking with neighboring states that already transitioned to Real ID, said department spokeswoman Alexis Campbell.

“We are very aware of the deadline. Getting REAL ID involves more than just showing up,” Campbell said.

Gastgeb worries that the requirement could hamper Pittsburgh International’s passenger traffic, which has grown each of the past five years.

“We work hard to get airlines to come to Pittsburgh. It’s very competitive, and we really don’t want our numbers to go down,” Gastgeb said.

While TSA does have mechanisms to process passengers who have lost or forgotten identification, it’s a time-consuming process that Gastgeb said can’t be relied on as standard operating procedure.

Pennsylvania drivers who received their first license after September 2003 are pre-verified for REAL ID and may apply for REAL ID pre-verification on PennDOT’s website. The state started keeping copies of customers’ documents that year.

PennDOT has conducted two media campaigns for REAL ID and is planning a third for later this year.

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