Skift Take

The bliss of finally being able to travel is making people oblivious to the Real ID requirement, which has been extended twice, and is now just around the corner. For travel advisors, it simply adds more to the pile of potential things that can go wrong.

The Department of Homeland Security last year announced an extension of the Real ID deadline to May 3 2023, but travelers are still scrambling to understand what they need to accomplish by next year while travel agencies are feeling the pressure, too.

“There is a huge lack of Real ID awareness amongst the general public,” said Erica Carr, founder of travel agency bookitbox Travel. “A very small portion of our travelers are aware of the need for Real ID to travel domestically post-May 3, 2023 and I have not seen an increase in awareness as of recently.”

The Real ID Act, passed in 2005, “establishes minimum security standards for license issuance and production and prohibits certain federal agencies from accepting for certain purpose’s drivers license and identification cards ”, as written on the Homeland Security website.

At first glance, a Real ID license, which can be obtained at motor vehicles agencies in states, looks very similar to a normal driver’s license. The only difference should be a black or gold mark, depending on the state, in the top righthand corner of the card. Driver’s licenses with this mark meet a new national standard intended to improve the integrity of state-issued IDs and combat security threats such as terrorism or identity fraud.

The act grew from the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the federal government set standards for issuance of identification for purposes of accessing certain federal facilities, entering nuclear power plants, and boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft.

The initial deadline for the Real ID Act’s implementation was October 21, 2020. In March of 2020, in response to Longwoods International’s polling data showing the U.S.’s lack of progress toward Real ID compliance, the DHS announced that there would be a one-year extension of the deadline until October of 2021. In the months that followed, the Covid-19 pandemic led to appointment-only scheduling, which brought significant limitations for many states’ capacities to issue Real ID-compliant identification.

A year ago, the Department of Homeland Security announced another extension of the Real ID deadline to May of 2023 to provide sufficient time for all states to issue Real IDs.

However, with document procedures varying state by state, regional disparities on Real ID distribution are growing. Some states are asking residents to resubmit extra identity source documents to meet the current minimum regulatory standards.

Other states, such as New York, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington, have long issued “enhanced driver’s licenses,” which have been designated as acceptable for boarding a commercial aircraft in place of a Real ID. While regular state-issued driver’s licenses from the above regions are still not Real ID compliant, enhanced driver’s licenses give certain states a head start in the race to prepare for the new deadline.

As of 2021, only 43 percent of all state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards in the U.S. were Real ID-compliant. This is a concerning growth level from the previous year, when states reported only 34 percent of all issued ID cards being Real-IDs. Administration of Real IDs is difficult due to the pandemic’s logistical drawbacks, but in many cases, states are struggling to prepare their residents simply because people don’t know what they should prepare for.

Since pre-Covid times, travel advisors at bookitbox TRAVEL have been making sure to take educational steps in client conversations to address the Real ID deadline. Even with the new extension, Carr’s team is concerned that they haven’t been seeing an increase of awareness amongst their travelers. The company is now considering measures beyond personal conversations, such as educating followers on social media, in order to spread word. This action comes not only from a place of client wellbeing, but also out of concern for the travel agency industry.

“Even if we educate our clients verbally and in writing, if they fail to execute a Real ID and attempt to travel after the deadline, the blame typically falls to the travel advisor,” Carr said. “There are massive amounts of information travel advisors currently have to provide to clients, and the Real ID deadline is yet another detail that could potentially be overlooked.”

Many travel advisors share Carr’s concern of being overwhelmed by information, but while Carr believes the solution is to alert travelers as quickly as possible, others are instead worn out by the repeated postponement of the deadline. 

Tom Carpenter, co-owner and travel advisor at New York-based Huckleberry Travel, said that Huckleberry was talking to their clients about the Real ID deadline two years ago. But with the back-to-back extensions being announced, they are now focusing on more emergent issues like shifting COVID entry protocols, the increasing frequency of airline schedule changes, and extraordinarily slow response times from supplier partners.

“In a time when travel is more complicated than it’s ever been, Real ID is just adding an additional complication for people,” said Carpenter. “We’re seeing people so desperate to get out there and travel quickly, that they’re not even looking at their passports to see whether they’ve got enough validity on their passports to take a trip.” 

With recent relaxations on international travel guidelines and a sudden influx of travel demand, the Real ID deadline is the last thing on peoples’ minds. The mass of Covid information travel advisors manage on behalf of clients, such as where to get tested, what tests they need, and what paperwork to fill out, is changing on a daily basis and disturbing the focus on Real ID protocols.

“Right now, the Real ID can has been kicked far down the road so many times, there’s a frustration that we’re doing a lot of work to assure clients about something that seems like is never going to happen,” Carpenter shared. “We’re all so busy responding to what’s immediately in front of us, we haven’t got the bandwidth to prepare people until we know that it’s actually going to be implemented.”

Carpenter says that the DHS should take the Real ID deadline as far down the road as possible, until there is at least a year of stability around Covid.


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Tags: air travel, airlines, coronavirus recovery, covid-19, domestic travel, travel, travel agents, travel recovery

Photo credit: Travelers will need a Real ID driver's license, or a passport, for U.S. domestic travel starting in May 2023. This May 16, 2016, file photo shows a long line of travelers waiting for the TSA security check point at O'Hare International airport, in Chicago.

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