When Did the Government Start Requiring IDs to Fly.. and Why Did They Do It?

Airlines long wanted to eliminate the secondary market in airline tickets, in order to enforce their revenue management strategies. If customers could buy and resell tickets, that makes it impossible for airlines to price discriminate between leisure travelers buying tickets far in advance and less price sensitive business travelers buying close to departure.

An airline can’t very well sell cheap early and expensive close-in if customers could buy those same tickets cheaply in advance and then resell them to other customers at a profit — while still undercutting an airline’s price — close to to departure.

As a result airlines have long wanted requirements for passengers to have to show ID in order to use airline tickets, in order to make airline tickets non-transferable.

Frequent flyers used to travel under each others’ names all the time, to gain the benefits of status for each other and to help each other earn points. ID requirements limit the ability to do that, although they don’t make it impossible.

But when did the ID rule become a government requirement?

According to Richard A. Clarke, former National Security Council member in the Reagan administration, chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, and Special Advisor to the President on cybersecurity in the George W. Bush administration, the rule was a ‘do something’ reaction during the Clinton administration in response to TWA flight 800, before anyone had any idea what had happened to the aircraft.

In his book, Against All Enemies, he wrote the President Clinton planned to see the families of victims of the airline disaster.

The ID requirement is one of the things his staff came up with:

Like much of the Patriot Act 5 years later, ID requirements were a pet idea that many people wanted to implement already and used a crisis as justification.

And the ID requirement, like the No Fly List, wasn’t actually enshrined in law but rather by executive fiat.

(HT: Papers, Please)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Interesting story, thanks for sharing. You’re not trying to suggest we’d be better off without requiring ID to fly, are you? On many levels, that doesn’t seem like a good idea. Even aside from safety considerations, I don’t think savvy travelers would be better off in a world of “transferable” airline tickets. Just like Southwest shows that savvy travelers aren’t necessarily better in a world with 2 free checked bags. Somebody has to pay for these extras.

  2. @iahphx I think the question of resale markets in airline tickets is a complex one, and I’m not expressing an opinion on that. I do not believe there’s a credible argument that ID’ing passengers makes flying safer.

  3. Over the years I’ve moved from the UK to the US to Australia And I’ve been interested in how he ID requirements differ.

    To and from the UK for many years there was no ID check until you got the door of the plane, if you checked in online, if not you’d get IDed at check in. This seems the best defence against someone getting on the plane without ID and was brought in by the airlines when the government imposed £2000 fines on airlines bringing people without valid visas or other documents to the UK.

    The US system still seems easy to flout although you do have to be a little creative to do it, less so before they started scanning boarding cards.

    Now I’m in Australia and it’s back to the old day. No-one will check your ID anywhere before getting on the plane when flying domestic.

  4. Resale of airline tickets is far different than resale of concert and athletic tickets. Outside of holidays, there’s enough capacity for everyone who wants an airplane ticket. Airlines just want more money.

  5. Ed, are you kidding? I am from Australia, and have flown domestically and internationally on all continents. No country is more thorough on ID checking that Australia!

  6. I should add that while I think the question of resale of airline tickets is a complex one … largely related to the question of adhesion contracts.. I certainly do not think the government ought to be enforcing airlines’ business policy preferences other than perhaps through civil courts.

  7. Gary, you open with “[a]irlines long wanted to eliminate the secondary market in airline tickets, in order to enforce their revenue management strategies.”

    How much of a secondary market was there 20 to 30 years ago? Its not like payments could be made between people terribly easily, tickets could not be marketed so easily in a secondary market, they could not be delivered so easily, etc., etc. I suppose someone who REALLY cared to assume some risk of non-sale might bet on the saleability of last minute purchase late Friday transcons, but just how these would have been/actually were marketed, I do not know. Today, were tickets essentially transferrable, there would no doubt be an app to enable it. With this perspective, how were ticket transfers enabled by a lack of ID requirement effected prior to the ID requirement?

  8. Australia, domestically, does not check ID. You can also pass through security with as much liquid as you like.

  9. Well, I think this discussion is simply theoretical because there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that we’re going to move to ID-free air travel. I can’t imagine any serious proposal to do that. That said, it would be quite amusing to see all the start-up internet ticket trading sites that would develop. Wall Street would almost certainly value these companies as being worth more than the airlines themselves, even if they didn’t make any money.

  10. Clinton was not the primary driver interested in ID checking of passengers. It was Al Gore, who ended up having a lot of Clinton’s ear and wanted that. But even then airport screeners weren’t checking passenger ID for US domestic flights during the Clinton-Gore years.

    The airport screeners demanding domestic US passengers’ ID didn’t come into place until George W Bush was President, and then only after 9/11. It was put in place to try to reduce the number of people who could get airside and to try to increase the “effectiveness” of CAPPS.

  11. If I were so inclined, I can still fly internationally in parts of the world without my ID being checked.

    If you want to fly as Gary Leff between Copenhagen and Berlin or Gothenburg, it’s pretty easy for random John Doe to do so and get away with it.

  12. In the early 1990s there was an active market in reselling partially used tickets’ flight coupons for domestic US travel. Sometimes these were for just the return portion of the journey; sometimes they were for legs beyond or even before a stopover; and sometimes they were part of mileage tickets. USA Today had ads for such things very frequently in the 1990s. The ticket brokers in the 1990s would just try to make sure to match male passengers with a male-indicating ticket name and female passengers with a female-indicating ticket name.

    This continued throughout the Clinton-Gore years, even after TWA 800.

  13. Back in the pre-ID days when I wasn’t quite sure who was going on a trip I always bought a ticket for Pat Lee. That name could be pretty much anyone.

  14. @Lexy,

    Yes, Pat as sex neutral and Lee as more ethnic neutral. Randy Sing also was rather popular with some ticket brokers.

    The ticket brokers also were in the game of “educating” their customers about what to do and not to do when using tickets in someone else’s name, but I also recall some customers and ticket brokers who got burned by customers messing it up for themselves.

    For what it’s worth, in countries where airline passenger ID is not always checked for domestic (and sometimes not even for some international flights), I’m still not finding a lot of ticket re-selling going on the internet. In large part, the airlines have shut it down by trolling the internet themselves; and most people aren’t saving a lot of money by using ticket brokers to pick up left-over flight segments and a larger proportion of the flying public are paranoid about flying on someone else’s ticket using someone else’s name. In other words, the supply and demand just isn’t there like it was in the late 1980s and throughout much of the 1990s.

  15. Here’s the Gore report from after TWA 800:

    http://fas.org/irp/threat/212fin~1.html

    It had an ID recommendation. But Gore wanted ID checks even before that.

    The passenger ID as flight security measure insanity continues to this day, but it was different during the latter part of the Clinton-Gore admin and most of the first year of the Bush-Cheney admin. Now we have the government distracting airport screeners and diverting resources away from hunting for contraband weapons/explosives/incendiaries because of the ID checking insanity at US airports.

    I don’t care if a ticketed passenger named Pat Sing on my flight is actually Pat Sing, Dick Cheney or someone else; but I do care if Pat Singh or Dick Cheney or whomever on my plane has contraband WEIs on my flights.

    The more time and money and mindshare the government wastes on obsessing over passenger ID at screening checkpoints, the less time and money and mindshare the government is using to secure my flights from contraband weapons/explosives/incendiaries. I don’t care who my fellow passengers are on the flight as long as all of them have been effectively screened to prevent contraband weapons/explosives/incendiaries from getting onto my flights. Traveling with a fake ID or under someone else’s name is not compromising the security of my flights; the governmental obsession with ID controls is compromising the security of flights in general.

  16. Thank you GUWonder.

    It is so very hard to contemplate how these sales would have been effected without the internet.

  17. Here’s how it worked on the ticket broker selling/customer-buying demand side:

    1. Ticket broker places print adds in major publications like USA Today, often with a toll-free number, and/or specific local/regional-oriented papers listing the date/route available — like LA Times for LAX departing flight coupons and Washington Post for Washington departing flight coupons.

    2. Customer calls up the advertised number and agrees to pay for the desired (paper) flight coupons.

    3. Ticket broker uses Fedex or other services to send ticket coupons to the ticket broker’s customer.

    4. Payment was done COD or by telephone credit card charges.

    5. Passenger flies on the delivered paper ticket coupons.

    With etickets, confidence level with/in ticket brokers delivering the flight coupons as sold sort of dropped due in part to the difficulty in making sure a seller of a ticket to ticket brokers wouldn’t show up and use the ticket themselves or re-sell it and thus rip-off the ticket broker and the ticket broker’s buyer(s).

    The other side of the equation was how ticket brokers got their supply of tickets to re-sell. It wasn’t that rare for ticket buyers to speculatively buy up tickets with extra segments when a good deal came across on SABRE or something like that and then buy up tickets in names that could be more easily sold. (They would then place print ads specific to the coupons so that the sum of the sale price of the individual flight coupons exceed the total price of the original ticket purchased and was padded for a risk premium in case re-selling a coupon or two didn’t work out on time.) That or frequent travelers would call up a ticket broker asking for a flight discount if they bought a ticket through them and agreed to re-sell onward flight coupons.

    A lot of the sales of these flight coupons in the pre-ubiquitous internet age was to put ads on university campuses or in university publications.

    The market was rather lucrative for ticket brokers back then. Some people were even making tens of thousands of dollars per year doing this from college dorm rooms or their parents’ basement.

  18. Back before IDs were required, my Dad flew under my name with my frequent flyer number. He got benefits for the flight and I got the mileage credit.

  19. To further the Australia example, in 2014 I had a brain fart booking a domestic flight and booked two tickets in my wife’s name instead of correctly booking one of them in my name. Due to the no ID policy, I was able to fly both directions as my wife, so airline tickets are de facto transferable there.

  20. Of course we should have to prove we are who we say we are to fly, and pretty much to do anything in today’s society. Except vote. It’s more important to make sure people are old enough to buy cigarettes and alcohol than it is to prove you’re actually an American and are permitted to vote. I’ve seen people in Denver use their Mexican passport and be allowed to vote in presidential elections here. It’s crazy.

  21. @Ken – A Mexican passport, if valid, would prove you are who you claim to be. You could easily be dual nationality and therefore a US Citizen with the right to vote in all elections. You could just as easily be a Mexican national but US resident alien, in which case you would only be allowed to vote in certain local elections (varies by locality, naturally). Seriously, it’s all on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_foreigners_to_vote_in_the_United_States

    @Gary – You don’t happen to know the Papers, Please! folks, do you? They just linked to this article! 🙂 I never would have guessed they would be VFTW readers!

  22. @Gary – As an aside, you should probably download the (unrelated company’s) game Papers, Please. It’d be an interesting way to pass 30 minutes on your next Cathay F flight w/o WiFi.

    Link to Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/239030/

    It gets surprisingly interesting after a little while and there are is a legit plot line running throughout, which you won’t find in the first 15 mins.

  23. @jamesb2147 – Yes, but a Mexican passport does not prove that you are a US citizen. And that is required to vote in presidential elections.

  24. @Ken – The fact that, at some point, somewhere, someone used a Mexican passport as proof of identity at a polling station does not mean that any crime was committed, even if that was during a national election. For example, in my locality, we *always* have a local election during a national election.

    Further, with few exceptions (I’m looking at you, the 537 Florida voters who decided the 2000 Presidential race!), the objectively tiny impact of illegal voting is no reason for the extensive focus on the issue. I’m not arguing to against basic ID checks, just that the issue has received an undue amount of attention. It’s probably best to let it go.

    Going even further, there’s a really decent argument that permanent residents should have voting rights. They have clear intentions to remain in their locality (hence the “permanent”) and *are* affected in the same ways as citizens by governance (laws, execution, etc.). If anything, they’re more open to abuse for generally being a minority (most, though not all, countries have a majority citizen resident population). This is considered one of the great weaknesses of democracy, and honestly, I feel we ought to resist that weakness. It fundamentally undermines the value of democracy to exclude people who are affected by the process.

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