by Michael J. Shapiro | September 06, 2017
Pittsburgh International Airport has become the first U.S. airport since 2001 to allow the nonflying public through security. The facility launched its myPITpass program yesterday, which permits people to go through the airport security checkpoint in order to access the airport shops, restaurants and gates. The new, dedicated desk issued 180 passes on the opening day; about 20 of those were issued to members of the media.

At present, the passes are only issued Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those who wish to accompany ticketed passengers -- or to meet them -- must check in at the ticketing level, show a valid photo ID, have their names vetted against the no-fly list and obtain a stamped pass. They then are allowed to go through the security checkpoints along with ticketed passengers -- with the caveat that ticketed passengers have priority and that nonticketed passholders might be asked to wait if the lines are long.

"Since I started here, people have been asking about shopping and dining at the airport," said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority. "We have worked closely with the TSA on this program. This program builds on our successful Holiday Open House program [which has occurred once every December since 2014] and airside access for guests of the airport Hyatt hotel."

Most importantly, added Cassotis, there will be no reduction in security. "We're going to check you the way the airlines check you. If you're allowed to get on a plane, you'll be allowed to go through our TSA checkpoint." Passholders won't be allowed through with luggage, but all of the same carry-on rules apply for any items they have with them.

As for potentially adding to crowd congestion, airport officials say that won't be a problem because of how the schedule has been devised. "We want to make sure we don't have any effect on the lines for the flying public," said Robert Kerlik, vice president of media relations at the Allegheny County Airport Authority. "Our biggest push is in the morning before 9 a.m. Many times throughout the day, our security wait time is less than 10 minutes. We wanted to start the program with these limited hours to make sure there's no impact on the line -- and we'd expect we're limiting the numbers overall, given the number of people who can come out between 9 and 5, Monday through Friday. Should the line ever get too long during those hours, the desk will cease to issue passes."

The new program opens up the possibility of greeting event attendees at the gate upon arrival and escorting them to their ground transfers -- as long as they arrive during those regular weekday work hours. "I think that could be a wonderful amenity," said VisitPittsburgh CEO Craig Davis. "If we're bringing VIP customers, it's always nicer to meet them at the gate. We'll try to use it to our advantage." 

Not everyone has greeted the new program with enthusiasm. Bob Ross, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, referred to the TSA's approval of the plan as "ill-conceived." His organization has sent objection letters to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke and TSA administrator David Pekoske.

"Allowing the nonflying public to go through security at the Pittsburgh International Airport for the sole purpose of shopping is a terrible precedent and an ill-conceived decision," he wrote in a statement. "Flight attendants are the last line of defense on an aircraft and as first responders, we know this move by TSA is a bad idea that needs to be reversed. Aviation security relies on a layered approach... Letting our guard down in Pittsburgh or any other airport for the benefit of retailers is not the right approach to airline safety and security.
"Personally, I'm stunned by the timing of this decision," Ross continued. "Days prior to the anniversary of 9/11 is when we should be reminding the public of the need to remain vigilant -- not sending the message that the airport is no different than their local mall."

But airport officials stress there is nothing risky about the program, nor the timing. "We worked for several years with TSA on this program to ensure that it is the same high level of security in place currently," said Kerlik of the airport authority. "Safety and security are the top priorities here, and at every airport. The security process here for this program is exactly the same as it is for the flying public. We were a little disappointed that APFA didn't reach out to us before putting out the statement, to learn more about the program."

Officials at other airports will no doubt be watching and learning from Pittsburgh's experience over the coming months, but the arrangement wouldn't necessarily make sense at many other facilities. "Access to the airside terminal is something that the Pittsburgh region has been asking for ever since it went away," Kerlik noted. "This airport was built as a destination for visitors, shoppers and diners. We hear constantly in the community that the public wants access to the airside terminal."