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'That ID won't fly.' A deadline looms for Pacific NW air travelers

State officials are worried about a possible mess at Pacific Northwest airports and driver licensing offices. Next October, the Transportation Security Administration will stop accepting regular Washington and Oregon driver licenses to pass through airport screening checkpoints.At a Portland airport press conference last month, and during a legislative committee briefing in Olympia this week, state licensing administrators raised the specter of airport concourses filled with frustrated, angry travelers who may be missing their flights because their picture IDs were rejected by TSA officers.

On Wednesday, Washington State Department of Licensing Director Teresa Berntsen described increasing urgency around a deadline that affects domestic air travelers about ten months from now.

"Check and see now if you have what you need," Bernstsen said. "If your choice is to get an enhanced driver license or ID card, don't wait. Come in now."

The problem with regular driver licenses in Washington is that state policymakers have chosen not to verify the immigration status of applicants. In Oregon, the DMV has a few, different bureaucratic hoops to jump through still to meet federal requirements.

This all stems from the Real ID Act, passed by Congress in 2005 to increase license security standards in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. The TSA has granted laggard states multiple deadline extensions in the past, but says it is serious this time about sticking to an October 1, 2020 cutoff for non-compliant IDs.

"You may already have what you need," Berntsen said, to pass through airport security after next fall.

A passport, military ID, permanent resident card or an enhanced driver's license are among the alternatives that meet the approval of the federal Department of Homeland Security and TSA. A U.S. passport card is another option -- cheaper than a traditional passport and good for North American land and sea border crossings as well as domestic air travel.

Washington state has moved to -- and Oregon will soon follow to -- a two-tier driver license system. Washington's Real ID-compliant Enhanced Driver License requires proof of U.S. citizenship, identity and residency. Oregon requires proof of U.S. citizenship or proof of legal residency in the case of noncitizens.

At a Wednesday briefing to the Washington Senate Transportation Committee, Berntsen said she became concerned upon learning that TSA has no plans to increase staffing at airport checkpoints when the toughened ID deadline arrives.

"TSA/DHS have not committed to allowing an alternative screening process for travelers who show up to TSA checkpoints without a Real ID-compliant document," she said, further adding to her concern.

A telephone message seeking comment from TSA was not immediately returned.

During its past session, the Washington Legislature provided money to extend the service hours at licensing offices and to publicize the upcoming Real ID requirements. Still, at this point only 15% of active Washington state driver licenses and ID cards are the "enhanced" variety that meet the federal Real ID standards. Washington Department of Licensing Policy Director Beau Perschbacher said he expects that percentage to rise to around 30% by the end of next year.

In Oregon, Real ID-compliant driver licenses and ID cards will not be available before next summer. Starting next July, Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle Services will offer people two driver license options, the Real ID version and a cheaper standard license that won't pass muster at airport security checkpoints. That leaves less than three months between the first issuance of the federally-acceptable licenses and the beginning of the stricter rules at airports.

"There simply is not enough time for DMV to produce enough Real ID licenses to meet the demand of nearly one million Oregonians who are going to want one and will need one to board a commercial flight," said Tom Fuller, communication manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, at a Portland International Airport news conference last month.

Fuller urged Oregonians to consider applying now for a passport or a passport card in order to avoid frustration or long lines later next year. ODOT said it can't begin issuing the upgraded driver licenses sooner because it first needs to complete the installation of a new computer system.

After next October, a regular Oregon or Washington license should continue to work for all of the other purposes it does today, except for the aforementioned airport security checkpoints and at entrances to secure federal facilities such as military bases.

Correction, Nov. 22: Story updated to reflect that Oregon currently verifies proof of legal presence in the country of Oregon driver license and ID applicants.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.