Christina Cassotis used to be asked the same question when she spoke at public events: Why can’t we go hang out at the airport like we did in the old days?
“We would hear people say, ‘I wish I could get over there, I’d like to have dinner, I’d like to shop, I’d like to greet my daughter when she comes off the plane with my new grandson,’ ” says Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which includes Pittsburgh International Airport. “It was among the top five questions at every single event, bar none. It got to the point where it was like, Why can’t we do that?"
After consulting the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration, the airport set up “MyPITpass,” a program that makes it possible for people who don’t have a boarding pass to visit shops, restaurants and gates past security checkpoints.
Pittsburgh, a onetime hub for US Airways, introduced the program in September 2017, and about 40,000 people have taken advantage so far. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport piloted its own version for six weeks in late 2018 and saw 1,100 people visit, though authorities have not decided whether to bring it back permanently.
Since then, Tampa International Airport added the “TPA All Access” program in May and has since expanded to allow more people to visit. Detroit Metro Airport just introduced the “DTW Destination Pass” last month, a pilot program that runs through Jan. 5. And others such as Austin-Bergstrom International Airport have said they are considering the possibility. Bloomberg News called the concept “terminal tourism.”
But wait a second. These are airports. Why would anyone voluntarily spend time at them ― especially with a TSA screening required? Airport executives say they hear several reasons from people who participate, including meeting a loved one at the gate when they arrive, or seeing them off; shopping; eating at certain restaurants; or just passing time plane-spotting with kids.
At Tampa International Airport (TPA), one dining establishment in particular has proved popular: “We have the only Potbelly Sandwich Shop in the state of Florida,” says airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps. “We knew Potbelly would be popular, but I mean, it’s a sub shop.”
She said the airport also has versions of well-known local favorites like Ulele and Columbia Restaurant Cafe — places that are popular enough to lure some people for date night among the suitcase crowd.
That’s a direction more airports have been moving in — and many are eager to display their offerings, says Colleen Chamberlain, vice president of transportation security policy at the American Association of Airport Executives.
“There’s a real focus now of creating a sense of place at the airport so you’re not just on gray chairs with white walls,” she says.
An unabashed airport fan, Chamberlain added: “It’s an airport; what’s cooler than watching planes come in and take off?”
For Matt Garland, a bit of a self-described aviation geek who lives near Pittsburgh, it was the perfect activity for an afternoon last year with his kids Nathaniel, 5 at the time, and Evangeline, who was almost 3. They saw a giant display of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, a massive Transformer-like sculpture and a robot repair shop that’s actually an art installation.
“It’s nice to be able to go, especially if you’re into aviation,” says Garland, who works in strategic planning for Deloitte Consulting. “It’s nice to be able to show the kids that as well, especially since I travel a decent amount.”
The experience he and his kids had wouldn’t have been novel before the Sept. 11 attacks. There was security screening back then, but a boarding pass wasn’t necessarily required to go through, Chamberlain says.
Long before MyPITpass, a handful of airports, including Pittsburgh’s and Detroit’s, made arrangements with TSA so guests at specific airport hotels could go through security checkpoints and eat at airport restaurants even if they didn’t have boarding passes. Pittsburgh also started an annual holiday open house in 2014 to allow people without boarding passes to visit.
“In terms of the bigger trend, it’s definitely one that has enough sustained interest by airports that TSA has put sort of a regulatory policy in place for airports that are interested in doing these type of programs,” Chamberlain says. “It’s not a one-off anymore.”
Any airport can decide to welcome non-ticketed passengers, says Jenny Burke, a TSA spokeswoman.
“It’s really up to the individual airport to decide if they want to pursue,” she says. “As part of that, TSA works with the airport authority to design the program that’s going to allow the access to the shopping on the sterile side of the airport without affecting the flow of screening procedures for those who are traveling.”
Each airport that offers access has a slightly different setup. Some set a maximum number of visitors a day, and all limit access to off-peak times. Everyone is subject to the same TSA rules as passengers are and should expect ticketed passengers to get priority if long lines form.
In Tampa, passes are only available to 150 people from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Saturday, a slower traffic day. Nipps says about 2,600 have used the passes so far, and the program may be expanded to include more days. Visitors have to sign up at least 24 hours in advance, choose the section they want to visit, show photo identification in person to get a physical pass and then go through security just like any passenger.
“People love it,” Nipps says. “There’s not really any downside to it. It’s not really taxing on our TSA lines or restaurants and shops."
At Detroit Metro Airport (DTW), where hotel guests at the airport Westin have been able to access the airport for nearly 13 years, the new pilot program allows no more than 75 people a day to use the DTW Destination Pass from 8 a.m. through 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Mondays are the airport’s busiest, so they made that day off-limits.
People have to apply the day before they want to visit and, if approved, show a government identification to get the pass before going through security. Security chief Debra Sieg said that TSA screens about 40,000 passengers a day, so adding another 75 “doesn’t even move the needle for them.”
Late last month, she said registration had maxed out every day, though not everyone ultimately shows up. Surveys have shown that the primary reason for using the program is meeting someone who is arriving or going to the gate with someone who is departing, followed by eating or shopping.
“Some of the responses we are getting back is, they are spending money,” Sieg says. “Which, for us, is important, but not our primary motivation.”
Pittsburgh International Airport doesn’t require sign-up in advance, and its program is only in effect from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Visitors have to bring government-issued identification to the designated MyPITpass ticket counter, where their name is run against a no-fly list. Then they head through security.
Cassotis, the airport authority CEO, says she doesn’t think the trend makes sense for every airport. But she’s confident it’s working for hers.
“People in Pittsburgh are very proud of the airport.”