No birthdate? No ticket? TSA “Secure Flight” is sneaking up on travelers

by Janice Hough on October 20, 2010


A major change is about to hit travelers. Some airlines have already instituted it, and it could cost some people their discount fares or even reservations.

There’s probably no perfect timing for the institution of new travel security rules.

The rule about needing a passport (or passport card) for travel to Canada and Mexico was delayed over and over again as the U.S. passport agency got backed up.

In contrast, the liquid rule was instituted overnight. (And every once in a while, I still see a traveler who acts surprised when their water or shampoo is confiscated.)

The latest rule is the new part of TSA’s Secure Flight Program — It requires, no later than November 1, 2010, for all travelers to have their birth dates and legal names entered in the reservation.

And while the program seems to be forgiving about middle names – probably because some people don’t have them – it is unforgiving about birthdates. Which isn’t usually that much of a problem, when a traveler is booking online the site will prompt them for the information, and a travel agent can simply ask.

However, as with most things involving travel, usually doesn’t help when you are the exception.

American Airlines inhibited the ability to issue tickets without Secure Flight information a few weeks ago. United did the same more recently. Southwest hasn’t allowed reservations to be paid by phone without birth dates for months.

It’s a relatively straightforward formula for entering the information too, but it has to be exact. One too many or two few slashes, and leaving off a 0 for example in a birth date, will cause the information to reject. And an error message when an agent tries to ticket.

Already, with some clients we’ve had the problem that someone wants to pay for travel for a new employee, or a job applicant, and we cannot issue the ticket without the Secure Flight data. Not a problem when there’s time to reach the traveler, but when clients call late in the day seven days before travel, and the fare expires at midnight, it’s a different story.

Ditto for vacation travel when many fares, especially bulk fares, must be purchased the same day they are booked. We’ve already had problems where someone wanted to book travel including a family friend or the boyfriend or girlfriend of a college-age child.

So far none of these problems have turned into disasters, but it’s been a short period of time. There’s always the work-around option to put SOMETHING in and then correct it later. This might work with birth dates, but won’t work with names. (Technically, as noted, the system hasn’t required a middle name, but we haven’t had the experience yet of someone going to the airport with a middle name not entered in their Secure Flight data. )

Another issue may be, what happens when the birth date is wrong? Which could happen, especially since many people use European dates with the date then month then year. (Easy to catch fix if your birthday is July 28, harder for a birthday of say June 5.)

In any case, the deadline for all this information is either upon us or very near. If Secure Flight goes as smoothly as most TSA innovations, it’s going to be one heck of an interesting end of the year.

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  • Aaron

    What I would like an answer on:
    My state only puts middle initial on my license. When I book tickets on a particular airline (unfortunately, I don’t recall which one), when I put my middle initial in (to match my license) it bounces it back as not sufficient. What do I do then?

  • em Hoop

    And some friends wonder why I’m planning to stay home for the foreseeable future!

  • MeanMeosh

    Or, for that matter, if you or someone you know has an “official” birthday that doesn’t match the real one. My mom has such a predicament. She was born in India at a time when records weren’t kept very well, so when she had to apply for a passport many years later when she immigrated to the U.S., her dad had to pay a “fee” to the city clerk to basically make one up. I was booking a flight for her over the weekend, and very nearly got caught in this trap. I was about to enter her actual birthday, but luckily, she was watching me do it and told me to switch it to her “official” one. Good thing, too, or I’d be dealing with a really unhappy mom next weekend when she gets stranded at the airport!

  • ton

    really birthdates are a problem? we always have to give them (and more) if you want problems try esta.

  • Hapgood

    I’ll yet again ask the question I ask whenever the so-called “secure flight” comes up: Does the program impose any requirement on the various agencies that maintain the various watch lists to update every entry on the lists with the full legal name and birth date? If not, how will “secure flight” do anything to improve either efficiency or security?

    Whoever mandated this program in Congress may have had the best of intentions. But as with so many well-intentioned “anti-terrorism” measures, when it’s finally flowed down through the bureaucracy it will be just another piece of security theater that causes a lot of hassle to many people with no actual benefit. That’s typical of the way our leaders have been fighting the War on Terror.

  • Bruce

    Have the airlines reprogrammed their systems to accept hyphenated last names? On more than one occasion a ticket needed to be corrected on an international flight to match passport info.

  • Tim

    This is definitely part of the security theater. As I have asked before, who cares who flies? It is more important to know what is flying. We are allowed to peacefully assemble, so it does not matter who is flying–we just need to make sure they are not carrying a bomb or gun. Of course, that brings up another issue–the body X-rays we are getting with the new scanners that needs rectified–but that is what we should be concentrating on.

    And what makes this even more useless: you can fly without any identification. Granted, it will take longer to get through security as the TSA will grill you, but you can get through. So fine, make up any information needed to get the ticket issued. Once ticketed, you could check in online and “print” your boarding pass to Photoshop or similar software, make changes to it (like changing the name to one you have on an ID) and then actually print it to paper; thus, the whole inSecure Flight mandate has been circumvented.

  • Joel Wechsler

    @Janice I’m not sure I follow you with respect to the European birthdate format, as that is the way that we have been instructed to enter the data. The U.S. format will not work for AA or Jet Blue.

  • Janice Hough

    @Joel, we enter it date/month/year, indeed. But sometimes when passengers send data, especially if it’s through a third party, there is some confusion as to whether they mean say, May 7, or July 5. Especially with last minute intl bookings.

  • Hugh Mannity

    There’s rampant age descrimination out there, and the government is institutionalizing publicly asking for birth dates?

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