In the 18 years that have passed since the September 11 terrorist attacks, air travel has radically changed. Gone are the days of bringing knitting needles into the main cabin, in case you felt like stitching a few rows while rocketing through the air; of going to watch the airplanes take off and land simply as a chance to meditate on the human condition; and of walking a loved one to the gate to see them off. No longer can we relate, culturally, to the romantic climax of early 90s movies where the hero chases after their love before they leave on a jetplane forever.
But that may be changing back. In early May, Tampa International Airport became the latest U.S. airport to allow non-ticketed individuals go through security, raising the question: will non-ticketed visitors become commonplace in U.S. airports once again?
We break it down.
Who can go through security without a ticket right now?
As of now, there are several ways to get through airport security without a boarding pass.
First: non-ticketed guest passes, such as Tampa’s recent program. Non-ticketed parties can apply for a TPA All Access Pass at least 24 hours before their visit, and with a pass they can go through security sans boarding pass in order to eat, drink, shop, and wait for arriving flights. There are some caveats, however: passes are only good from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and the airport is limiting passes to 25 per airside (the secured part of the airport).
Pittsburgh International Airport has a similar program, myPITpass, launched in 2017 — which made them the first airport post-9/11 that allowed public access airside, according to Afar. So far, the program is only available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Similarly, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport ran a visitor pass pilot program which ended in December 2018, during which time 1,165 visitors enrolled. They’re going to make a decision sometime this year about whether or not to continue the program.
And for all commercial airlines, there are escort passes. You can apply for an escort pass in order to accompany a minor or a disabled friend or family member to the gate or pick them up when they land (save for customs and immigration, which are still off-limits to those with escort passes).
Does this mean security is about to get laxer?
In short: no. All non-ticketed guests allowed through security at both Tampa and Pittsburgh are beholden to TSA regulations, so there’ll be no clipping your toenails while you wait for your significant other to land, and yes, you have to remove your shoes if they tell to you, even if you’re not hopping on a flight to Lima.
There are already certain airlines and flights which don’t require a TSA screening before boarding. such as Twelve Five Standard Security Program flights, which carry fewer than 61 passengers and whose aircrafts weigh at least 12,500 pounds. These are generally hyper-local flights (for example, island hoppers in Alaska and Hawaii) which wouldn’t be able to operate if they were burdened by the cost of paying for TSA screening infrastructure. These flights aren’t totally TSA-free, however: they’re required by the TSA to have the staff vetted and the cockpit locked during operation in order to be deemed secure enough to fly.
Are we finally free from the tyranny of the TSA?
Though the TSA was created after the September 11 terrorist attacks, making it a relatively new government body, its presence and its screening rules are ubiquitous across the country — as are its ever-changing rules about shoe and laptop removal, its fluctuating, sometimes devastatingly long wait times, and its inconsistent screening processes.
So do these visitor programs spell a change a-comin’ to airport security? Maybe — but not right now. Only three years ago, Port Authority — which runs Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK — sent a letter to the TSA that they were “exploring the merits of participating in the Screening Partnership Program.” At the time, the news was explosive: three high-traffic airports about to cut ties with the TSA for what studies have shown is an equally effective screening program. (While TSA-sanctioned, the SPP allows airports to use private security firms instead of the government body.) Port Authority cited long wait times and missed flights as the reason “the flying public” had “reached a breaking point.”
Thomas Bosco, Director of the Port Authority Aviation Department, wrote in the 2016 letter: “Given the adverse customer service and economic impacts, we can no longer tolerate the continuing inadequacy of TSA passenger screening services.”
UPROXX reached out to Port Authority for comment, but had not heard back by the time of publication. Still: the existence of these public visitor programs means that airports are likely to become a little bit more open once again and — in all likelihood — more efficient in the process. Both change travelers everywhere will happily welcome.