Real ID is a big deal: Not having one could keep you grounded

Mirror file photos A plane takes off from a runway at the Altoona Blair County Airport, Martinsburg. New regulations require stricter security to be in place by October this year.

A lot of Altoona travelers never intend to travel abroad, so have no need for a passport. If they wanted to visit a sick relative four states over or go to Florida for a Disney vacation, they could always use their Pennsylvania driver’s licenses to board domestic flights.

But identification requirements are changing, and local travel experts worry that some passengers aren’t paying attention and will be left at the gate.

“The fear … is that people who are occasional flyers, who are not used to the system and only fly once a year or every couple of years, won’t realize the changes and they’ll get to the airport, show their (Pennsylvania driver’s) license and won’t be able to fly,” said Tracy Plessinger, manager of the Altoona Blair County Airport. “It’s an education process.”

And it’s complicated largely because of a series of deadline extensions that Pennsylvania — along with about half of the other states — keeps asking for and getting, because it still hasn’t complied with the Real ID Act of 2005 that Congress approved in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The latest formal deadline to have the enhanced ID in Pennsylvania is Oct. 1 of this year, but the commonwealth won’t have the Real IDs ready until the spring of 2019, according to Alexis Campbell, community relations coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which oversees the ID and driver’s license programs.

PennDOT officials are confident, though, that they will get one or two more extensions until Oct. 1, 2020, after which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will prohibit anyone from flying commercially or entering a federal building, such as the courthouse in Johnstown, or a nuclear facility without the new ID or a passport.

“DHS will only give extensions one year at a time,” Campbell said. “We expect to get extensions until we’re compliant. Of course, extensions are up to the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security, but based on our relationship with them, we have no concerns. We’re confident.”

Local travel agents aren’t.

“The first thing I square away with my travelers is that October 2018 deadline,” said Angela Koelle, travel agent with Classic Travel in Hollidaysburg. “If they’re traveling after that, I’m suggesting they get a passport.

“I was scared before this latest extension went through, thinking as a business owner how this was going to affect … my customers. Many people save for months, if not a year ,to go on a trip to Disney World, and my concern was how am I going to tell this person, ‘You’re going to have to drive or shell out more money to get a passport or cancel your trip.”

Cheryl Scott, travel agent with Ketrow Travel in Duncansville, likewise is telling concerned customers to get a passport.

“If you’re in doubt or worried and if you have something booked (after October), get a passport,” she said. “You have to have one to travel to Canada now, and you can fly anywhere in the world” with one.

But passports aren’t cheap. A basic one, good for 10 years, starts at $110 for those 16 and older. It’s $80 and good for five years for those 15 and younger. Various fees are applied on top, so the bottom line can vary. You could get a cheaper passport card that starts at $30. It is Real ID compliant — meaning you could board a domestic flight with it — but you can’t use it to fly to Canada or Mexico — only drive there — and it’s no substitute for a driver’s license.

You can start the passport application online at www .travel.state.gov and finish it at several area post offices, including downtown Altoona, Roaring Spring, Tyrone and the Blair County Prothonotary office in Hollidaysburg.

Scott said one customer didn’t want to go to the trouble and expense of getting passports for all four of her children just to fly to Florida. And they don’t have to, at least now, she noted. DHS doesn’t require children younger than 18 to have an ID when traveling in the United States with a properly-identified adult.

“Of course, they could change that at any time,” Campbell noted.

Real IDs won’t be free, either.

Customers will have to pay a one-time fee of $30 for the Real ID plus the renewal fee, which currently is $30.50 for a four-year non-commercial driver’s license, according to PennDOT. The expiration date of their initial Real ID product will include any time remaining on their existing driver’s license or photo ID, plus an additional four years, unless the customer is older than 65 and has a two-year license, PennDOT announced recently.

“This expiration date structure means that the customer won’t ‘lose’ time that they’ve already paid for,” PennDOT’s most recent press release said. “After the initial Real ID product expires, the customer will pay no additional fee, beyond regular renewal fees, to renew a Real ID product.”

Campbell noted that Pennsyl-vanians don’t have to get a Real ID.

“The Legislature decided not to make it mandatory,” she noted. “If you have a passport or never fly or never visit a military base or federal building or do any of those other things that require the Real ID, you don’t have to do anything.”

But if you choose to get one, prepare to do some paperwork. PennDOT will have to verify these documents:

n Proof of identity, such as an original or certified copy of a birth certificate with a raised seal or a valid U.S. passport.

n Proof of Social Security number with a Social Security card.

n Proof of all legal name changes, such as a marriage license or court order issued by family court.

n Two proofs of a current, physical Pennsylvania address, such as a current license or ID and a bank statement or utility bill no older than 90 days with the same name and address.

“PennDOT strongly advises its customers to begin gathering the required documents as soon as possible, especially if they will need to obtain replacement documents,” according to a press release. It noted that some states take up to six months to process duplicate birth certificates and “it is advisable to begin that process right away.”

But before you start gathering the paperwork, note that PennDOT already has verified information on about 35 percent of its customers: those who got their first Pennsylvania driver’s license or ID card after September 2003.

Beginning this March, those customers can visit PennDOT’s website or call its call centers to verify it has that information and then get a Real ID when it is available in the spring of 2019. The state agency promises that the process can be done through the mail preempting the need for those customers to visit a driver’s license office.

But since most PennDOT customers got their initial license before 2003, they will have to take the required documents to a driver’s license center to be verified in person. The agency promises that center will be equipped to verify those documents starting in September.

PennDOT also promises to eventually create 13 Real ID Centers to handle requests over the counter. It also said the Real ID licenses will be counterfeit-resistant with secure features such as holograms.

They are not to be confused with the recent redesign of Pennsylvania’s driver’s licenses.

“Another issue is the new driver’s license (design),” said Koelle, the travel agent. “Many people think they’re the Real ID and they’re not. They’re under the impression, ‘I’m good,’ and that’s not the case.”

She said she is irritated with officials for not being prepared — the delays began almost as soon as Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005 when officials in Pennsylvania and other states actually voted against complying with the federal ID program over privacy rights issues.

“The government knew this was coming and had more than ample time to get their act together, and they don’t have it together,” Koelle said. “

They’re working on it, and the focus now is on communicating and educating, especially with airport and travel officials, Campbell said.

“It’s a big deal and we’re very aware of that,” she said.

Plessinger said airports will be working with PennDOT to help educate travelers.

“A lot of people don’t plan on flying and they just are not going to take the time to figure it out,” he said. “But what if six months later, they need a Real ID because a family member is ill or they have to attend a funeral of a loved one or some out-of-the-ordinary situation happens?

“They’re going to be stuck.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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