by Hank Leukart
November 30, 2008

How to fly without photo ID (still)

The TSA’s wacky security precautions have become even wackier.

A TSA security checkpoint at JFK International Airport in New York

A TSA security checkpoint at JFK International Airport in New York


OS ANGELES, Calif. — I’m writing this on a Virgin America airplane flying from Los Angeles to New York, and I’m happy to report that I am less cranky about my flight than usual. The airline’s purple lighting and spacey bathroom music may be cheesy, but my laptop isn’t low on power (VA has power outlets under every seat), I’m not hungry (mediocre but edible $9 tea sandwiches can be ordered using VA’s interactive entertainment system), and I’m not uncomfortable (VA has leather coach seats and enough leg room).

Perhaps the most surprising thing about my trip, however, is that I never showed photo identification to anyone before boarding my flight.

Before this year, flying without identification used to be a fairly simple endeavor. In fact, in the service of journalism and Without Baggage readers, I prepared to write this by successfully flying earlier this year without photo identification on domestic flights leaving from airports as major as Los Angeles International Airport and New York’s JFK International Airport. I also succeeded at smaller airports including the Burbank airport in California and the Sarasota airport in Florida. In all instances, I encountered little resistance, and in some cases, passing through security checkpoints without identification was faster than if I had shown them an ID. In those cases, the TSA agent simply put me in an expedited checkpoint line and marked my boarding pass with the code “SSSS” to alert agents to subject me to additional screening, which mostly involved a quick body pat-down.

Online publications have written extensively about flying without photo ID and airport security. Slate wrote about a loophole in the boarding pass-check process, which allows clever passengers to bypass the secondary security screening by carry two boarding-pass copies. Graduate student and privacy-rights advocate Christopher Soghoian explained how to print new labels for bottles of liquids to sneak more fluid ounces of KY Jelly through security. Artist Evan Roth even created special metal plates to surprise TSA agents manning airport X-ray machines. In this spirit, I admit that I have also dreamed of filling my pants with toothpaste and hair gel or wearing a fat suit filled with shaving cream and root beer to illustrate the silliness of airport security and the liquid contraband rules.

But in June of this year, the TSA implemented a more stringent identification-verification process, making my Thanksgiving-2008 adventure in photo identification-deficiency more arduous than usual.

At Los Angeles International Airport, after informing the TSA agent at the pre-security-checkpoint checkpoint (are both checkpoints really necessary!?) that I had forgotten my wallet, he looked visibly annoyed and began grilling me.

““You don’t have a credit card or even your Costco card?” Since clearly I was talking to a man who had never thought of taking any trip without his always-necessary Costco membership card, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I have never set foot into a Costco.”

“You don’t have any identification at all with you?!” I explained that I had left my wallet at home. “You don’t have a credit card or even your Costco card?” Since clearly I was talking to a man who had never thought of taking any trip without his always-necessary Costco membership card, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I have never set foot into a Costco.

Frustrated, he called for his supervisor using a walkie-talkie. Don’t worry — I wasn’t holding up the line. As the agent checked other passengers’ IDs, I watched and lived vicariously through him, realizing that his job, though monotonous, seemed more fun than I would have imagined. It was pleasurable and even a little exciting meeting hundreds of people eagerly bounding off to their Thanksgiving-holiday flights.

Soon, a supervisor arrived, and she grilled me again about my lack of identification, apparently trying to remind me of my exceptional stupidity. Incredulous, she told me that she’d have to “call someone to handle this.” Then, she said into her walkie-talkie, “I need Zebra Team here in Terminal Six.” Seriously.

She left quickly, leaving me to wait for Zebra Team, as I stood next to a long line of travelers and their gatekeeper, Costco’s biggest fan.

Zebra Team turned out to be a 50-year-old, gray-haired man in a Transportation Safety Administration uniform with a nametag reading, “Chester 59977.” I could only assume that the TSA requires Zebra Team members (or was he the entire Team?) to change their last name to a five-digit number to prove an allegiance to the force.

Chester 59977 began grilling me with more questions about why I didn’t have photo identification: “Are you sure you don’t have anything?” I almost wanted to suddenly “remember” the passport and driver license in my suitcase just to stop these repetitive questions, but I refrained. He told me that I was the fifth person that Zebra Team had been called to assist that day.

After he asked me to write my name and address on a form, he said, “I’m gonna have to call this in.” Then, on a Nextel phone, he called a mysterious, all-knowing organization, which began relaying him questions to ask me about my personal background.

I’m pretty sure he called Costco’s headquarters.

“Have you ever lived in Ohio?” I told him that I had, and he asked me to write my childhood home’s address on the form. “What are the names of some of the people who lived with you?” he asked. “Which cross streets intersect the street upon which your childhood home sits?”

Eventually, he seemed satisfied with my extensive knowledge of Midwestern suburbia and told me that I was free to go.

No half-intelligent terrorist would arrive at the airport ever without a fake photo ID, but I wondered what would happen. “If I hadn’t known the answers to your questions,” I asked, “would you have arrested me?”

“We could have arrested you,” he said, clearly wanting to make sure I was fully aware of Zebra Team’s impressive power. “But we probably would have just turned you away.”

“It’s getting harder to fly without ID these days,” he said. “It’s against the law.” Of course, Chester 59977 is wrong. It’s still technically not against the law to fly without photo identification, but it’s definitely becoming more difficult, especially if you aren’t extraordinarily familiar with your childhood home’s residential street grid and don’t always carry your Costco card. Zebra Team makes sure of that. WB

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