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American Opinion: Real ID was supposed to make air travel safer 15 years ago. America is still waiting.

From the editorial: With the new deadline set at 2025, it will be 17 years before Real ID comes to fruition.

A Transportation Security Administration agent checks a flyer through security at O'Hare International Airport in 2019.
A Transportation Security Administration agent checks a flyer through security at O'Hare International Airport in 2019.
(Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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“Government” and “ineptitude” are two words forever joined at the hip. The latest example is a doozy.

American Opinion
American Opinion
Tribune graphic / Forum News Service
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Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., Congress enacted the Real ID Act, a sensible measure aimed at safeguarding air travel. The law requires travelers 18 and older to show a Real ID-compliant driver’s license or identification card — or another Transportation Security Administration-approved ID like a passport or a global entry card — before boarding a domestic flight.

The reason for the change is obvious. The 9/11 hijackers were able to board their flights using American driver’s licenses and state IDs, most of which had been fraudulently acquired. These days, fake driver’s licenses are easily purchased online and thus ubiquitous.

The law was enacted in 2005, and initially was supposed to take effect in 2008. What’s downright baffling is the fact that 15 years have gone by, and Real ID remains a worthy idea derailed by government inertia.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently announced that the May 3, 2023, deadline for enforcement of the law has once again been extended, this time to May 7, 2025. “This extension will give states needed time to ensure their residents can obtain a Real ID-compliant license or identification card,” Mayorkas said.

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Needed time? States were given their marching orders in 2005 — nearly 18 years ago. Sadly, deadline extensions pockmark the history of Real ID. There are myriad reasons for the delays, but selfish politics, government inefficiency and lack of coordination between levels of government are prime culprits.

At first, many states expressed reluctance to comply, in part because of concerns about cost. In reality, implementation didn’t represent a massive hit on state budgets — in many cases, states already had the means and technology to transition to Real ID.

States like Montana and Maine viewed the law as an intrusion on states’ rights and passed laws opposing Real ID. In Illinois, Democrats in power in Springfield resisted obeying a national security mandate handed down by a Republican administration; Real ID was passed under President George W. Bush.

At times, reasons for delays had merit. The pandemic forced several deadline postponements, including the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to push off enforcement until May 2023. More often than not, however, petty politics was the reason for roadblocks to implementation.

Janet Napolitano, who was Homeland Security secretary from 2009 to 2013, was a fierce opponent of Real ID. Before she joined President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, she was Arizona’s governor and signed into law a measure opting out of Real ID. Once she took over DHS, she publicly spoke out against the law as an unneeded cost, prompting many states to drop their push to comply.

Still, Napolitano left Homeland Security 10 years ago, and since her departure there hasn’t been nearly enough headway made. Roughly a third of Americans still do not have any form of identification that would meet the act’s requirements.

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What’s needed is much stronger cooperation between Mayorkas’ department and state governments, specifically each state’s department of motor vehicles, as well as a much more robust public awareness campaign that nudges Americans to update their driver’s licenses and identification cards so that they’re Real ID-compliant.

The bottom line is that, over the years, administrations at both the federal and state level have repeatedly and needlessly struggled to execute a law that bolsters security for commercial air travel. It’s hard to argue against a measure that doesn’t really saddle states with exorbitant costs, and ensures that travelers at airports are really who they claim to be.

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With the new deadline set at 2025, it will be 17 years before Real ID comes to fruition. That’s not an example of exemplary governance — it’s an epic fail.

This American Opinion editorial is the view of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Send feedback to: opinion@wctrib.com.

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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