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TSA’s Secure Flight Program: What It Means for You

Until very recently, the Expedia booking site knew me as “Ed Hewitt,” going back to the day I signed up for the service nearly 15 years ago. And Expedia knows a lot of my friends for whom I have booked travel over the years — Patty, Tom, Chris, Ben, Dan and a few others. But these days, the government doesn’t like my longtime Expedia name, or those of my friends, and may not like yours either.

The TSA’s new Secure Flight program is now requiring us to use our full legal names as they appear on our accepted form of identification — so now I shall be Edward C., and my friends shall henceforth be Patricia A., Thomas P., Christopher W., Benjamin H. and Daniel R., or we won’t be visiting each other — not by taking a flight at least.

One of the TSA’s main reasons for Secure Flight is that it will “greatly reduce the number of passengers misidentified as a match to the watch list.” Given that the no-fly lists are notoriously messy, the program makes some sense — if we are using government-issued ID to, well, identify ourselves, whether it be a passport or a driver’s license, it seems to follow that the document to which you are comparing the ID should match up, end stop.

But while it sounds simple, there are nuances to the Secure Flight program that you’ll want to be aware of before you book your next trip. Read on to learn how the program could affect you.

How Secure Flight Works

Secure Flight launched in August, is currently in a phase-in stage, and is intended to be fully in place by November 2010 for all flights leaving from and/or arriving in the U.S. Essentially, the airlines and booking engines will collect your full name, gender and birth date when you book your flight and send that info to the TSA, which will then compare the information against the no-fly list. The name you give when you book must synch up with your full name as shown on the government-issued ID you use when checking in for your flight.

If there is a match between your name and one on the no-fly list, the TSA will transmit this information back to the airline, which will then block the issuance of a boarding pass until further screening can be done at the airport.

Folks who have had problems with the no-fly list in the past (typically people with identical or similar names to those on the list) can request and enter a “redress number,” issued by the TSA, when booking. If you check out okay, your boarding pass will be issued and you’ll go through airport security as usual.

Secure Flight is a behind-the-scenes pre-screening tool that compares the name of the traveler booking a reservation to the official no-fly list. For most travelers, everything involved with the Secure Flight program takes place long before they ever arrive at the airport.

Secure Flight does not replace the eyes-on screening that you undergo when you arrive at the security checkpoints. TSA agents will continue to compare boarding passes to your ID to ensure a match as well as to confirm that you have a valid form of ID.

What About Boarding Passes?

Officially, the TSA says that “the name you provide when booking your travel is used to perform the watch list matching before a boarding pass is ever issued, so small differences between the passenger’s ID and the passenger name printed on the boarding pass, such as the use of a middle initial instead of a full middle name or no middle name/initial at all, or hyphens and apostrophes should not cause a problem for the passenger.”

Secure Flight and security checkpoint boarding pass reviews are not directly related. Sarah Horowitz of the TSA’s Office of Strategic Communications & Public Affairs notes that “at the security checkpoint, TSA strives to ensure you are who are you say you are. TSA performs travel document checking to see that you, your identification and your boarding pass match and are valid. While Secure Flight and travel document checking are both critical security functions, they serve different purposes at different points in the security process.”

So Secure Flight really has nothing to do with what appears on your boarding pass, although we can hope that conforming to Secure Flight booking requirements should make for greater consistency between boarding pass and ID names.

That said, this may or may not ease problems with boarding pass discrepancies at security checkpoints; as mentioned above, that is an entirely separate security function. The Secure Flight program ensures only that people who are not on the no-fly list will be issued boarding passes.

As with almost every new TSA initiative, a period of adjustment should be expected — we all remember shoes off, then shoes on, then shoes off; laptop bags allowed, then laptop bags not allowed — but hopefully the system will settle into place over time. (You’ve gotta feel for the airline and security folks at times; for example, the TSA’s graphic about Acceptable and Not Acceptable Documents includes pictures of a fishing license and a library card as examples of unacceptable documents. If you have spent any time in airports, it’s not hard to imagine folks trying to use these to board flights.)

Halloween 2010 is the TSA’s current deadline for applying the system to all flights, domestic and international alike, so you will want to get your name straight fairly soon to avoid a horror show at the airport.

What You Need to Do to Conform to Secure Flight Requirements

On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be a problem; I just make my next booking with my full name and I’m good, right? The biggest problem is that computers are dumb, and garbage in equals garbage out — and there are a LOT of computers out there with our names in them, not all of them correct. Enough possibilities exist for small data inconsistencies and problems that you will want to get well ahead of the curve with this program; some due diligence (and, let’s face it, hassle) may save you a lot of grief once the program is fully in place later this year. Here are some tips and considerations to help you anticipate a few of the challenges you may face:

1. It is your responsibility. It is incumbent on the individual traveler to comply with these changes; a mismatched booking may be the fault of your travel agent, spouse, friend or assistant, but it is your legal obligation to make sure your own travel records comply with the law.

2. Info gathering may vary considerably. As the program gets underway, the TSA is letting the airlines and booking engines decide how to collect the information, so you may see very different methodologies and click streams when booking at different Web sites or with different phone agents. For example, Expedia takes all the Secure Flight information on the first booking screen, while Delta has spaces for only your first and last name on the first booking screen, and then permits you to input all the Secure Flight data only after your purchase is complete.

The TSA has not mandated the pace of integration of Secure Flight. Notes Horowitz, “Passengers shouldn’t be concerned if particular airlines don’t ask them to provide the additional information right away; it should not impact their travel. Each airline will request this information as their capability to request it is integrated into their individual systems.”

3. Update ALL your accounts. Be sure that every airline, booking site, frequent flier program or travel agent that you use has your correct full name, birthday and gender listed.

4. Be aware of what appears on your ID. After reading up on Secure Flight, I took a look at my government ID’s. With my passport in one hand and my driver’s license in the other, I realized, oops! Looks like I already have a problem. My license says Edward C. Hewitt, but my passport says Edward Charles Hewitt. Do I need to book domestic travel (for which I would use my driver’s license) as Edward C., and international travel (for which I would use my passport) as Edward Charles? The answer (at present, at least): yes, that is exactly right.

The simplest thing to do might be to get your two favored ID’s (typically a driver’s license and passport) to read identically, but this may not be as easy as it sounds. After checking the licenses of a half-dozen friends, it looks to me like my state’s DMV strongly prefers a middle initial (due to space constraints, I suspect; a driver’s license is pretty small). And if I do want to change one government ID because another government agency requires something different, most likely I am going to have to pay for it, but that’s another story for another time. For the time being, it appears you may need to think ahead to which ID you will use for a particular trip and make your reservation using that legal name.

5. Dealing with suffixes, hyphenations and more. Since the program got underway in August 2009, some travelers have reported discrepancies with regard to suffixes and hyphenated names — Jr. vs. Junior vs II, for instance — and the booking sites that I reviewed for this article display varying ways of collecting this information. One had a long dropdown box with almost every imaginable name suffix; another just had a box into which you type the suffix as you like to use it.

Horowitz again: “TSA recognizes that name formats on government identification will vary depending on the issuer. Due to these variations, TSA has built some flexibility into the Secure Flight program. Passengers should strive to book travel reservations using the name that appears on their government-issued ID, but small differences such as a hyphen should not impact a passenger’s travel. Secure Flight can accept names with or without additional elements such as suffixes, titles or apostrophes. When making a reservation, passengers should follow the prompts provided by the airline reservation system. If the airline does not allow hyphens in a passenger name, a space should be used instead of the hyphen.”

6. Booking for others. If you are making reservations for your family or friends, you will need to make sure you use the exact name on each family member’s ID of choice. If your friend’s license says Mary Margaret and you know her and book her as Peggy, she is going to have a problem getting to Houston.

7. Using a travel agent. Similarly, if you use a travel agent, you will need to make sure he or she knows not only your full legal name, but more specifically your legal name as it appears on the form of ID you will be using on that specific trip. Again, it is incumbent on the traveler to make sure the travel agent gets this right; blaming it on your travel agent is not going to be well received by airport security. They may work with you, but can’t just let everyone who blames their agent pass without additional screening.

8. Name changes. If you make a name change for any reason, until your new ID’s have been issued, you will need to remember to book under the name that appears on your ID.

9. Difficult or unusual names. If you have a name that is difficult to spell or unfamiliar to Western ears, you’ll need the patience of Job and the diction of a schoolmarm to book a flight over the phone. I have a friend whose last name is Pfaendtner (pronounced more or less “Fentner”); that’s three vowels and six consonants, including four consonants in a row. Good luck getting the agent in a noisy US Airways call center to get that right every time. You will need to be insistent in this case, and you should check your itinerary immediately upon receipt when mailed or emailed to you.

10. Verifying your reservation. In fact, that last bit of advice goes for everyone. Be sure to confirm the name on your reservation well in advance of travel, and then check in for your flight as early as possible, preferably using the online check-in service on your airline’s Web site. Because any issues will arise at the time you request a boarding pass, by checking in online 24 hours before travel, you can avoid any check-in counter delays resulting from the new program — and if you are going to be denied a boarding pass for security reasons, you will find out enough in advance that you can do something about it.

11. Other info. Gender and date of birth must also match up — so you’d better make sure your travel agent knows your birthday.

12. Award travel. Traveling on award travel using your frequent flier account seems the most likely source of problems for many travelers; these programs tend to issue tickets in the name you used at sign-up for the program, not the name you might supply at the time of booking. Some frequent flier programs are taking proactive steps to contact members; others are not. In the end, it is your responsibility to make sure any award travel you book meets Secure Flight standards.

13. Redeeming unused travel. The new program also makes redeeming travel for unused flights potentially cumbersome. If you purchased the old flight before Secure Flight procedures were in place, you will need to make an official change to your reservation to be in compliance with the new standards.

14. Fixing problems. Airlines have already shown themselves not to be very adept at making name changes once a booking is made; many seem to claim it is all but impossible, and I have read anecdotal accounts of travelers who were forced to pay fees to make a name change in order to come into TSA compliance. The TSA has no official position on fees as they apply to Secure Flight; you need to check with your airline. If you encounter this problem, I would recommend emphasizing that the change is only due to complying with law, and perhaps send a note to the TSA if a fee is still applied.

15. Character count limits. To return to blaming the computers, some software systems have character count limits (a single initial for a middle name), or do not allow hyphenated names, or don’t have a field for “IV” or the like. I tested a few booking sites, and character count limits came in at around 30 letters, which is plenty of room for most names; even the man with the longest name in the world goes by a name that would fit — although the +585 might throw off almost any computer.

16. Traveling with kids. If you are traveling with children who do not yet have ID, check their birth certificates before you book, and bring them with you.

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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in March 2010.

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