Is the TSA “trying to scare me into providing personal information”?

Secure Flight. Just the mention of those two words is enough to confuse, frustrate or frighten the average air traveler. As in, “The Transportation Security Administration’s new Secure Flight program will require you to … (insert name of ridiculous new policy here).”

The question now isn’t what is Secure Flight. It’s, “what isn’t it?

Frank Perch got the following email from AirTran the other day, for example.

Recently, the Transportation Security Administration announced changes to their watch list matching process called Secure Flight. The mission of Secure Flight is to enhance the security of domestic and international air travel through the use of improved watch list matching. Another benefit will be greatly reduced incidents of passengers being misidentified with names on the TSA’s watch lists.

What does this mean for me?
Starting today, when purchasing a ticket you will be required to provide your full first, middle and last name, exactly matching the valid government-issued ID you will present at the airport (e.g. driver’s license, passport, etc.).

Beginning August 15, 2009, you will also be required to provide your gender and date of birth when booking flights.

How will I benefit?
You will benefit from the Secure Flight program through improved security on all flights and reduced rates in misidentification of passengers who have similar names on the TSA watch list.

He thought it was a scam.

The email does not exactly say, but strongly implies, that if I goof up — if my name on the reservation does not exactly match the format on my ID — that my ticket will not be valid.

My first reaction to this email was actually that it must be a phishing email of some kind. Some crook is trying to scare me into providing personal information. Yet the email seemed to pass many of the usual phishing tests. I couldn’t find any spoofed hyperlinks for instance.

I was still suspicious though because none of the other airlines I deal with was contacting me about this alleged requirement, which the email says is effective TODAY, and also usually when there is something important like that one would expect a bit of advance notice.

As it turns out, the email is legit, and so is the requirement. But Perch’s note underscores the fact that there’s so much misinformation about the new TSA policy, it’s amazing that air travel hasn’t ground to a halt.

Among the misconceptions:

Secure flight went into effect June 1. Actually, it was effective May 15. The government’s new passport requirements, not to be confused with Secure Flight, went into effect yesterday. If you’re interested, my colleague Edward Hasbrouck has a disturbing take on that new rule.

It will require you to use your full, legal name immediately. In fact, TSA officials promise to gradually phase in Secure Flight. “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,” the department says.

If your name doesn’t match, you’re grounded. Over the coming months, when booking airline travel, you may be asked to provide your name as it appears on your government ID that you plan to use when traveling, according to the TSA. But it’s also clear in reading the department’s documentation that you won’t be denied boarding if your name isn’t a precise match. (You’ll probably get an extra screening by a TSA officer.) So you can keep using your old name, but you might want to book under your legal name to avoid delays.

A word of advice for those of you who want to bring your airline tickets into compliance with Secure Flight: don’t bother. It’s your airline or online agency’s responsibility to collect Secure Flight-compliant names and, eventually, genders and birthdates (coming in August). So don’t try to change the name on your ticket, because your airline could charge a change fee and a fare differential (which they gladly will) and that will do you absolutely no good.

Let me quote from the TSA FAQ section:

Q: What if my name and I.D. do not exactly match when I arrive at security? Will I be turned away and unable to fly?

A: No. Secure Flight will not impact the process at the security checkpoint in any way.

So let’s all take a deep breath. No one is out to steal your identity. Your airline tickets are fine.

At least for now.

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