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

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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."

boarding pass airport airplane air travel flight ticket travelSo 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."

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