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Answers to the question Why are passports checked at the check-in counter, Immigration and even at the gate? point to the fact (among others, but this is the main trend) that airlines are held responsible by the arriving country if they did not do some due-diligence on the capacity of an individual to enter the destination country.

The Schengen Agreement allows, in normal times, for free travel between Schengen countries. I therefore cannot think of a reason for the airlines to check the IDs or passports of the travelers at the gate.

  • I remember that 15 years ago the check was random (sometimes they would check for the ID, sometimes not) and further back there was no check at all.

  • Since you can drive between EU countries freely the "can they go to the other country" aspect is moot.

  • The ticket is already payed off so whoever travels does not make a difference here (except if there are fees for changing the name (which is the case at least for low-cost airlines), but this is not the problem of the airport and their staff)

Is this just tradition or security theater, or is there a specific EU reason for that?

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    I'll keep this as a comment rather than answer as it's just an anecdote and speculation, but: there's no legal requirement (I've flown many times in recent years without such checks, indeed far more often than with checks), it's really a matter of individual airline policy and I doubt there's a one-size-fits-all reason for those airlines that choose to perform them. Legal liabilities you've mentioned are one plausible reason (though I'm not sure how applicable for intra-Schengen), as is security (theatre), or simply verifying the person flying is the same person who has a ticket reservation. – Chris H Jun 23 '20 at 6:35
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    It doesn’t happen in all EU countries. Spain likes to enforce ID checks by the state (not the airport or airline) even for domestic flights, most other countries do not bother. ID checks at the gate by airline staff is mostly to ensure the name on the ticket is the name of the traveller. That’s partly revenue enforcement and partly ensuring the names on the flight manifest are correct. – Calchas Jun 23 '20 at 6:38
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    @canonacer: when you are in the EU you automatically have the capacity to enter other EU countries – WoJ Jun 23 '20 at 6:45
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    @Calchas I'm surprised to hear that about Spain - I visited Barcelona last year and was actually a little disappointed when nobody at either end of my four flights wanted to see any ID (I'd just gained German citizenship a few weeks earlier, and was a little excited about using my new ID card for the first time) – Chris H Jun 23 '20 at 6:57
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    @WoJ "but this is not the problem of the airport and their staff": the people operating the boarding gate are employees of the airline or of the airline's ground agent. Even if the ground agent is the airport authority, it is acting as the airline's agent and must follow the airline's procedures, which are of course devised with the airline's liabilities in mind. – phoog Jun 23 '20 at 14:04
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Your question is full of unwarranted assumptions that deserve being pointed out:

  • It's not the case that every person present in the EU has the right to enter every other EU country. One such exception is someone who has exhausted their right to stay under a short-stay or long-stay visa but is still waiting for their residence permit (in France, they would hold what's called a récépissé de demande de première carte de séjour, which explicitly doesn't allow travel within the Schengen area). The same can obviously apply to someone whose presence is illegal in the country of departure (overstayed a visa, subject to a deportation order, etc.)
  • The fact that you could relatively easily circumvent this rule doesn't mean it doesn't exist or the state won't try to enforce it. That's pretty much how customs or border enforcement works in Europe, even outside of the Schengen area. In fact, in recent years Schengen countries have markedly increased checks of all kinds (on trains, busses…). This arguably diminishes the value of the Schengen area and is possibly illegal but it's still happening.
  • The personnel checking ID at the gate typically works for a ground handling provider, not the airport itself. Several such companies might operate at the same airport and they are contracted out by airlines, which means they do care a great deal about preventing resale and safeguarding the airlines revenue. Even when it is done by the airport operator itself, the same logic applies: airlines pay for the service and airports compete with each other.

As Kris explained (+1), the latter is the most likely explanation. In fact, flying without showing any ID is reasonably common, including from some of the countries you mentioned in your comments. Whenever there is a check, in my experience (and with one notorious exception: Ryanair), it's only an ID check and not a check of the person's immigration status (i.e. third-country citizens who require a visa are not asked to show their residence card, only the ID page of their passport).

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    A document check (checking whether the person can enter the destination country) is typically performed at check in, not at the gate. So what happens at the gate is indeed not a check for immigration status. – Krist van Besien Jun 23 '20 at 8:52
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    @KristvanBesien That's a lot more blurry nowadays, with near-ubiquitous online check-in and several other models: a separate desk (Ryanair), additional checks before and after check-in (flights to the US or Israel), etc. Even the terminology is not completely standardised, a check at the gate is still obviously a document check, the notion of a “conformity check” seems to be specific to Belgium. But the OP seemed to be confused about the distinction, hence the explanation in my answer. – Relaxed Jun 23 '20 at 9:25
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ID checks at the gate are so called "conformity checks". They check whether the person presenting herself at the gate is indeed the same person as the person that is on the passenger manifest.

Whether these checks are done depends on airline policy, and national requirements. Some airlines do this for all flights, because they want to prevent resale of tickets. Low cost airlines typically always require ID. Some countries require all airlines to do such conformity checks.

But it is by no means universal. I fly SWISS and LH a lot, usually from Zürich, and never have to show a passport or ID at the gate. When flying Brussels Airlines however I almost always have to show a Passport or ID.

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  • Indeed. At some point one of the reasons for this was terrorism prevention: making sure that Mr Known Terrorist doesn't book a flight under Mr Innocent Person's name and is able to fly under that identity. – jcaron Jun 23 '20 at 11:52
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    Because gate agents are of course well trained in the art of spotting forged ID documents... – Krist van Besien Jun 23 '20 at 13:50
  • Security Theater™ :-) – jcaron Jun 23 '20 at 21:41

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