Whether or not you’re getting on a plane, you may soon be able to get in a TSA line — just to eat the pulled pork mac ’n’ cheese at Iron Chef Michael Symon’s namesake restaurant in Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT).
Thanks to a new program starting on Sept. 5, non-fliers will be allowed to roam beyond security at PIT as part of a test the airport developed with the Transportation Security Administration’s sign-off. Visitors who check in at a dedicated counter on the airport’s third-floor ticketing level and show a driver’s license or passport can receive a complimentary “myPITpass.” Anyone on the no-fly list will not be allowed, and everyone will still have to go through TSA’s standard security procedures—just like travelers with a regular boarding pass.
For the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, parents of unaccompanied minors and the children of traveling elderly at the Pennsylvania hub will be able to see them to the gate and keep them company until boarding.
“This is one of the top five requests I get any time I give a speech,” said Christina Cassotis, chief executive of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which oversees PIT. “This is a very unique community in that you have a lot of meeters and greeters, people who drop off and pick up loved ones,” she told Bloomberg.
For Cassotis, the move signals “a return to the good old days” before 9/11, when anyone could show up with flowers to pick someone up from the gate.
But a lot has changed since the good old days. For one thing, security requires far more thorough screenings. And whereas PIT was built as a major hub for US Airways, it now operates as an “origin and destination airport,” where people begin and end their journeys but rarely transit through on connections.
PIT’s history as a former hub explains its vast proportions: a “Center Core” has more than 100 retailers including a Furla, Brooks Brothers, and Hugo Boss. There are also mini-museums—one from the Carnegie Science Center and one commemorating Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—and a recently revamped kids’ zone, created in partnership with Carnegie and the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum. And the airport is home to more than 30 restaurants, ranging from fast-food and quick-service classics to, yes, restaurants by celebrity chefs such as Symon.
Until 9/11, the Pittsburgh airport was a popular hangout. “A lot of people remember when this airport was built 25 years ago, being able to come here on a Friday night for dinner,” Cassotis said. “It’s endearing, it’s genuine. People really like it.” But then TSA ratcheted up its standards; non-travelers were no longer welcome.
Locals would still come here for dinner if they could, claims Cassotis. And she has proof: Over the last three years, the airport has run open house nights once a month, each with a thousand attendees. “The shops and restaurants do well,” Cassotis said of the open houses. “Those days are very good for our bottom line.”
PIT’s expansive facilities are also what make this test program viable. In its heyday, in 2001, a prime year for PIT, the airport counted 9.9 million “enplanements,” that is, passengers boarding planes. In 2016, it clocked just 3.9 million—a decline of 61 percent. “An extra 1,000 people here doesn’t make it feel crowded,” said Cassotis.
For the time being, the program only allows non-traveler visits from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
“Our biggest push is the morning rush,” said Bob Kerlik, vice president of media relations for Pittsburgh International Airport, “so by limiting the hours until after 9, that ensures that we’re not adding to the security line. The last thing we want to do is make security lines longer.”
He says the airport will monitor the length of security queues, and only issue myPITpasses if the lines are moving along quickly. If congestion forms, it’ll halt the distribution of myPITpasses to prioritize ticketed travelers.
At the moment, the program is not part of a larger, national program, said TSA spokesperson Michael England, although it’s not hard to imagine other airports lobbying for a similar program if PIT’s pilot turns out to be a success. “This is an agreement between the airport and local TSA officials,” he said. “For the time being, there are no plans to offer this at other airports.”
The TSA will not be hiring additional personnel to accommodate the program, nor does it anticipate that there will be an impact on checkpoint times. “The public will be strictly vetted and screened as if they were boarding a plane,” England continued. “All rules for carry-on luggage will also apply to those receiving the myPITpass.”
It remains to be seen if airports with out-the-door security lines, like New York City’s JFK and Chicago O’Hare would welcome the prospect of increasing volume by any amount. And in cities like those, where restaurant and shopping options are plentiful, it remains to be seen if locals would welcome the prospect of visiting an airport for fun. But not Pittsburgh.
“This airport is the pride of the community,” said Cassotis. “Why not let people pass through and enjoy it?”
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.