Up front, I'll confess that I still don't have a good answer to the question that is likely to come to dominate the national discussion as the Real ID deadline approaches next fall.
That question is why? As in ...
Q. Why, as of Oct. 1, 2020, will the federal government require passengers to show a Real ID-certified driver's license, valid passport or other special form of identification to board a domestic air flight?
A. To show that the Trump administration is extra serious about combating terrorism? That's my best guess as to the reason for this enhanced identification requirement. Congress formalized it in a 2005 law that was born of post-9/11 panic, but it's being implemented only because of a 2017 order from Trump's Department of Homeland Security.
All but one of the 9/11 hijackers would have been able to board their planes had Real ID requirements been in place, and afterward, this nation has seen zero air hijackings without Real ID requirements in place.
Real ID is a solution in search of a problem.
In fact, it's creating problems of its own — confusion, pique and long lines at driver's license facilities — as many readers have reminded me in a flood of questions and complaints. And I do have some answers there.
Q. What forms of identification will still work to get you on an airplane after Oct. 1, 2020, if you don't have a Real ID?
A. A valid U.S. passport or passport card, a Department of Homeland Security Global Entry card, a military ID, a permanent resident or border-crossing card, a foreign passport, a Canadian driver's license and a variety of other documents listed at tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/identification.
If you have one of these and remember to have it with you at the airport or whenever you want to enter a federally secured facility, you can avoid the crowds and all the news coverage and wait until after the deadline to apply.
Q. Since a passport is among the documents that can substitute for a Real ID, can you simply show your passport to be issued a Real ID?
A. Of course not, silly! And a Real ID can't be used as a passport. This is the government we're talking about here. To get a Real ID you need to assemble a small cache of documents that includes proof of identity (such as a passport or birth certificate), proof of Social Security number (such as a Social Security card, tax form or pay stub), proof of current residency (such as utility bills or bank statements) and proof of signature (such as a driver's license or canceled check).
If you do most of your banking and bill paying online and don't have bills and stubs lying around, computer printouts are OK.
Q. What sort of mistakes are typical?
A. Presenting utility bills, bank statements or canceled checks that are more than 90 days old is one I heard about frequently. Even though the Real ID card will be good for four years, you can't get one by showing old bills.
A problem some people — mostly women — are encountering is that, because of marriage or divorce, their last names don't match the last names on their proof-of-identity documents. Such people have to bring with them certified proof of marriage or proof of dissolution of marriage papers that reconcile the discrepancy.
Q. Do minors need to get Real ID cards?
A. Only if they are traveling alone.
Q. Does it cost extra?
A. It's $5 to replace a current drivers license early, but there's no extra charge if you upgrade to Real ID at your normal renewal time.
Q. Will Real ID be a de facto national identification card?
A. No, says the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its answers to frequently asked questions at dhs.gov/real-id-public-faqs. The program "does not create a federal database of driver license information," says DHS. "Each jurisdiction continues to issue its own unique license, maintains its own records, and controls who gets access to those records and under what circumstances."
Q. How long does the process take once you show up at a driver's license facility?
A. It depends on the facility and time of the week, according to many anecdotal reports. It took me 90 minutes, but I've heard everything from 30 minutes to four hours, so bring along reading material.
Q, Must you make this, too, about Donald Trump?
A. Yes. Because Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had the good sense to ignore this ill-advised, unnecessary bit of security theater that's now robbing people of time they'll never get back and will almost certainly ruin untold thousands of vacations and business trips in the future. The current administration decided the requirements are "critically important."
Congress passed Real ID 14 years ago, but next October, Trump will own it.
Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.