Want to Get Through Airport Security Faster?

Try flying without your identification. Jim Harper of the Cato Institute took a dare to try and get through airport security while carrying no identification.

Jim Harper left his hotel early Thursday at 5:30 a.m. to give himself more than two hours to clear security at San Francisco International Airport. It wasn’t that he was worried the security line would be long, but because he accepted a dare from civil liberties rabble-rouser John Gilmore to test whether he could actually fly without showing identification.


Scolding the DHS committee for dithering over small matters, Gilmore said that it should be investigating the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping program and that the committee’s real job was to “protect the homeland from mean-spirited officials.”

Gilmore then dared committee members to place their driver’s licenses in the envelopes he had passed out, mail them to their home addresses and then attempt to fly home without identification.


Gilmore referred to his own experience when Southwest Airlines refused to let him fly in 2002 without identification, and a recent blog post by travel expert Edward Hasbrouck, chronicling his near-arrest for trying to figure out if the person checking identification at Washington Dulles International Airport was an airline or federal employee.

At the meeting’s close, Harper, a committee member, said he’d take the challenge so long as he could hand his envelope to a reporter who accompanied him to the airport. He also challenged the other members to join him.

“We have influence,” Harper said. “I challenge my colleagues to believe in the law.”


At 6 a.m. the next morning, Harper handed this reporter a green, self-addressed stamped envelope and entered the checkpoint line, which even at that early hour was filled with travelers facing a 20-minute crawl to the magnetometers.

Harper told the identification checker he had no ID, and the attendant quickly wrote “No ID” with a red marker on his ticket and shunted him off to an extra screening line — generously allowing him to bypass the longer queue of card-carrying passengers.

There Harper was directed into the belly of a General Electric EntryScan puffer machine that shot bits of air at his suit in order to see if he had been handling explosives.

TSA employees wearing baby blue surgical gloves then swiped his Sidekick and his laptop for traces of explosives and searched through his carry-on, while a supervisor took his ticket, conferred with other employees and made a phone call.

Meanwhile, a TSA employee approached this reporter, who was watching the search through Plexiglas, and said, “It’s pretty awkward you are standing here taking notes,” but he did not ask for identification or call for a halt to the note-taking.

The TSA supervisor returned from her phone call and asked Harper why he didn’t have identification and to where he was traveling. But she was satisfied enough with his answer — that he had mailed his driver’s license home to Washington D.C. — that she allowed him to pass.

At 6:30 a.m., standing 50 yards away on the other side of the glass screen, Harper phoned to say he now had two hours to kill, having gotten through screening perhaps even faster than he would have if he’d shown ID. He guessed he was able to get through without much hassle by being polite and dressing well.

I suppose it also helped having a member of the press standing by ready to make a story out of anything untoward happening to Mr. Harper.

Still an interesting story about how it isn’t necessary to show indentification when flying. It also makes some sense. After all, the threat isn’t likely to come from somebody who doesn’t have identification and agrees to go through a more rigorous search process. Instead the greater risk is going to come from somebody who has all the appropriate papers (more than likely with an alias) so as to appear less suspicious.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. James Joyner says:

    Interesting. I’ve flown dozens of times since 9/11 and have never been allowed to get even to the main security line without having a boarding pass and ID card. I’ve never tried to get in without an ID, of course.

  2. Another way is to pay for your ticket in Cash. You automatically get tagged and have to go through special security. In other words, you move to the front of the line. I’ve done this twice during times I knew ATL would be a nightmare. Got through almost immediately, as opposed to an hour wait or more. Apparently, terrorists pay cash for tickets.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    Hey, another good tip. Thanks Michael.

  4. Of course the quickest security would be to hand out guns to a dozen passengers chosen at random. Can you imagine any AQ terrorist trying to hijack a plane knowing that a dozen of those cowboy Americans would be armed on the plane?

  5. 🙂 Always happy to be of service. A police office at Denver Airport tipped me off to this, BTW. Buying a one way ticket will also get you flagged.

  6. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are obvious risks to paying for any big ticket item in cash. I only do it when I know I won’t have to cancel.

  7. Mark says:

    the threat isn�t likely to come from somebody who doesn�t have identification and agrees to go through a more rigorous search process. Instead the greater risk is going to come from somebody who has all the appropriate papers

    Why would you tell the terrorists this secret? Now they won’t bring ID and will be able to get through! Obviously you are a member of the America-hating left 😉