Sunday, January 21, 2007

A clearer picture of how to fly with no ID

I flew from Philly back to Indianpolis today on Continental, and again got to try out the no ID experience (putting me up to a grand total of 5 flights without any ID at all, and 1 flight with my student ID).

I used the easy check-in machine at the airport to print out my boarding pass (by punching in my confirmation code - no credit card/ID necessary). I then told the Continental employee behind the counter that I had lost my ID at a bar the night before, and that I wasn't going to be able to produce any ID. One key question she (and her supervisor) seemed to find important was if this was my outgoing, or return flight. It seems they're more willing to be a bit flexible if you're 'stranded' somewhere.

Like last time, I told them I had read in the New York times that you can fly without ID if you get a special "SSSS" boarding pass. They didn't seem to be too happy to know that I knew their secret SSSS code...

I had handed over my boarding pass to them, and as she read me the rules, it seemed clear that she wasn't going to give it back to me without any ID. In the end, I handed over my Library of Congress 'reader' photo ID, and she wrote "SSS" (her mistake, not mine) on the boarding pass in ink.

Once I got to the TSA checkpoint, I told them I didn't have a single piece of ID - which worked just fine. Sure, I got checked, but I didn't have to show them anything at all, other than the marked boarding pass.

After I had gone through security, I asked some of the TSA guys a few questions:

Q: If I don't have SSSS on my boarding pass, will you let me go through security without any ID?
A: No.

Q: Will TSA write SSSS on my boarding pass if I don't have any ID?
A: No. You must get it done by the airline.

Q: What happens if I show up to a TSA checkpoint without any ID and a vanilla boarding pass
A: We will send you back to the airline.

My absolute favourite question during this chat was the following:

Q: How do you know if I didn't just write the letters "SSSS" on the boarding pass myself
A: We know. There are secret things that the airline staff will write that you won't recognize.

Q: But the woman at Continental forgot one of the S's on this boarding pass. Are you sure they know your secret signals?
A: Move along.


As you can see, I am essentially engaged in a delicate form of black-box testing of the airport security system - an extremely delicate form - where half of the tests I'd like to (but do not) run may land me in jail.

A few things now seem to be clear:

You can easily travel without showing a single piece of ID to TSA. However, you will need to have a boarding pass marked with the magic letters "SSSS".

Some airlines - like Northwest - will quite happily give you a special, machine-printed SSSS pass if you tell them you have forgotten ID.

Other airlines - like Continental - will require 'some' form of ID. This can be satisfied with some pretty weak forms of ID, such as a credit card, or a library card.

Let us, for the sake of discussion, imagine a scenario where you are unable to fly on Northwest airlines (or another no-ID friendly airline), and thus have to deal with an airline that requires ID. Let us also assume that you do not want to have to procure a library card in a fake name.

What can you do?

Check-in online, 24 hours before the flight, and print out your own boarding pass.


Use one if the easy check-in terminals at the airport, and punch in your flight confirmation number.

If you do not try to check a bag, you will never have to interact with an airline employee.

Ok - so you now have a vanilla boarding pass, but since the letters SSSS haven't been written on it, TSA won't let you pass. What can you do?

The obvious answer, of course, would be to write the letters "SSSS" on the boarding pass yourself - using a sharpie pen. The problem with this, is that I'm guessing it's probably illegal. As the Gilmore case demonstrated, TSA is extremely tight-lipped regarding their ID requirements. Once things calm down with my case, I'll write TSA a nice friendly letter to see what they say. In the mean time - let me be as clear as possible - I am in no way encouraging anyone to write "SSSS" on their own boarding pass. It is probably very very illegal.

However, as things currently stand, unless I've missed something, it seems that the only thing stopping you from flying without any ID on continental airlines, is a sharpie pen, and a willingness to break a couple rules.

By taking down my fake boarding pass website a few months back, TSA was able to successfully stop a would be computer-owning terrorist from avoiding the no-fly list with a fake pass. Well, that is, a terrorist who didn't have the skills to google to find the other boarding pass generators that are still out there.

Luckily, we're safe. Terrorists have not yet been spotted with sharpie pens.


Anonymous said...

When we recently traveled on Continental w/ id presented when ssss was on our boarding pass that individual was singled out for a pat down and extensive search w' q&a session. If no ssss then just went through normal. What gives?

Anonymous said...

Don't quite agree with the ssss means travel with no ID.

It must actually be the other way around. An ssss on a boarding pass means extra security checks, seeing as that is what happened to me and every other person who writes about the ssss online.