This Idiot's Guide to Boarding Planes
What happens when you are dumb enough to forget to take your ID to the airport? Take it from me, there's a service for that.
A case of irony: In six years working for CNN—an international news organization—I never traveled more than two miles from the Atlanta headquarters on company business. My first day working for Patch—a hyperlocal journalism venture—and I’m due to get on a plane to New York for three days of training.
My lack of business travel experience became evident the moment I reached the check-in counter: I had forgotten my driver’s license and had no other photo identification.
Maybe this was why CNN never sent me further than the parking deck without someone holding my hand?
Regardless, I was immediately distressed that I would not make my flight. But, no worries, the ticket agent said. Just get a temporary passport at the Denied Boarding Desk near the security gate. Will take about 15 minutes.
What? Seriously? A temporary passport in 15 minutes?
Sure enough, there was a store advertising “Quick Passports and Visas” in large lit letters. Inside, the clerk heard my story and said that for $50 I could get an Affidavit of Identifying Witness good for 30 days, provided that there was someone at the airport who could vouch for me.
Luckily, a new colleague, Jon Gargis of the Dallas-Hiram Patch, was flying on the same plane with me. We had never actually met, save for a few e-mail exchanges the day before. Apparently, that was good enough.
The resulting document: A passport photo of me stapled on a photocopied form and then notarized twice and then stapled to a photocopy of Jon’s driver’s license. The final product placed within the TIS Inc. International VISA service envelope.
Is it legitimate?
Let’s put it this way. The piece of paper got me on a plane to New York and returned me safely. Transportation Security Administration officials in Atlanta hardly looked at the form (presumably because they had seen it before); those at JFK Airport in New York had me present a few credit cards before accepting it.
(The form did not, however, work as a supporting document for my I-9 employment forms with Patch and AOL, although I tried. Later, I had to provide a copy of birth certificate and the driver’s license, which was left on my printer at home.)
So, I was thankful about getting on the plane, but was this secure? I knew Jon all of a day. If he wasn’t there, could I have offered a stranger a $100 just to say he knew me? Would that have worked?
Patsy Wolf, who owns TIS Inc.’s International Visa Service that provided the affidavit, insists that it would not. Wolf, a former private investigator known as "The Visa Lady," said she has trained her staff thoroughly to provide the affidavits only to those people who can prove their identity. Sometimes it involves a flight companion, who must take an oath that they know the ID-less person. Sometimes it involves a battery of phone calls to family members and friends or even to government officials.
“We do everything we can do to verify who the person is, through independent sources,” she said. “If someone else comes to verify the person, that other person becomes responsible.”
Presumably, that means that a stranger won’t vouch for a stranger because he doesn’t want to be responsible for an incident on a plane. Wolf said her company issues dozens of affidavits each day, totaling more than 5,000 or 6,000 over nine years.
She said the passenger still has to go through TSA’s security measures and that agency officials has accepted her affidavit every time except for a few incidents where the passenger was “probably being obnoxious.”
And now for the second ironic story of the day: Wolf opened the airport branch of her business on Sept. 11, 2001, or at least tried to. With most airport services shutting down for weeks, she had to make a decision: Keep the business open or shutter it even before it got started.
That same afternoon, a woman in her 80s, who had never traveled abroad before, arrived at the airport branch and insisted that she get a passport so she could see the beautiful places left in the world “before they blow them all up.”
“I had asked God to give me a sign about keeping the store open,” Wolf said. “If that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is.”
And she feels her business provides an essential service, especially since two percent of people who turn up at the airport don’t have the things they need to leave the airport. In addition to the affidavits, her business provides passports, visas and other travel documents through the airport branch, the Sandy Springs main office and online and through a toll-free number at 1-800-627-1112.
To be honest, my conversation with Mrs. Wolf made me more confident about her business, especially the claim that amid nine years of business and thousands upon thousands of boarding affidavits, not a single incident could be traced to her company.
My conversation with Transportation Security Agency officials, however, wrought concern.
Jon Allen, an Atlanta-based TSA spokesman, said he had heard of alternative procedures of securing identification but was not aware of this business… even though it was located in the main airport in his territory.
Allen said simply: “Our officers have the discretion to accept other forms of identification and allow screening just like any other passengers to ensure that they don’t post a threat.”
He directed me to two links to detail TSA policy concerning boarding identification here and here. Neither policy describes the affidavits provided through Wolf’s company, but clearly they have been accepted at airports here and abroad.
Wolf said she actually considered discontinuing the service some years back, “but TSA came back and said we want you to do this service. As long as they want it, I’ll do it. I’m very proud of it.”
“I think we’ve been tested to see what we’re doing,” Wolf said. “I don’t’ think we would be allowed if they haven’t tested us and allowed us to do what we do.”
Funny that while Wolf’s affidavit raises security concerns with me, I was thankful that—for me at least—the service was available, and I made my flight.