Most airport visitor pass programs back up and running

Aug 22, 2021

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Before the pandemic, a handful of airports around the country offered gate pass programs that allowed non-ticketed visitors to join ticketed passengers on the security checkpoint lines and gain access to the secure side of the terminals.

The events of 9/11 and the creation of the Transportation Security Administration had put an end to the mingling of ticketed passengers with non-ticketed airport visitors sending a loved one off or waiting for them to bound off their flight. But starting in 2017, when Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) received permission from TSA to test out a visitor program, airports in Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans and elsewhere began offering this amenity as well.

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Most of the visitor pass programs were paused during the pandemic. Which wasn’t a big deal because, for more than a year not many planes were flying and not many people were going to airports anyway. But now that more people are flying and reconnecting with loved ones, those time-gifting gate programs mean more than ever.

With so many actually wanting to take advantage of the airport gate pass programs, TPG checked on the status of as many programs as we could find. [If we missed your airport’s program, please let us know]. Here’s what we learned.

Where can you meet grandma at the gate?

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) temporarily suspended its Visitor Pass Program on March 21, 2020, during that scary time when cities, states, and countries were just starting to ramp up their coronavirus restrictions.

The program, (which we tested out during a daycation in January 2020) relaunches Tuesday, Aug. 24. A visitor may apply for a pass up to seven days in advance (or day of) by filling out a form online with their full legal name (as it appears on their passport or driver’s license), date of birth, and gender. If approved by TSA, the visitor receives a QR code to show at the security checkpoint along with a TSA-approved ID. Day passes are issued for use 8 am to 10 pm, every day of the week.

Related: My ‘daycation’ at Sea-Tac: Everything you need to know about airport visitor-pass programs

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) introduced its MSY Guest Pass in December 2019, a month after the airport moved operations to the new terminal. The program was not suspended due to COVID-19, “although the use of the guest pass program declined significantly during the pandemic,” airport spokeswoman Erin Burns told TPG. “It was still available to anyone who needed to use the service.” MYS’s program is available seven days a week, from 11 am to 8 pm. 50 passes are available each weekday; 100 passes are available for both Saturdays and Sundays. Reservations and applications must be made at least 24 hours in advance of a visit.

The new terminal at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport)

Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) began its DTW Destination Pass program on October 22, 2019. The program was paused between March 16 and August 31, 2020, due to health concerns related to the pandemic, but is now fully operational. Approved visitors can access both the McNamara and North terminals seven days a week, from 8 am to 8 pm. As with all gate pass programs, non-ticketed visitors are subject to the same security screening regulations as passengers boarding planes.

In Orange County, California, John Wayne Airport (SNA) didn’t have a gate pass program before the pandemic but rolled out the OCAirPASS, in late April 27, 2020.

“Our initial launch of the program resulted from the concession closures throughout the Airport’s non-sterile (pre-security) side,” says JWA spokeswoman AnnsSophia Servin. “As a result of the pandemic, non-badged employees affiliated with rental car companies and ground transportation services could no longer purchase food or drink items on site. The program was made available to the public shortly thereafter.” Terminal concessions returned to pre-pandemic hours of operation and full menus in August; guests who secure an OCAirPASS may “shop, dine, or stay with or greet relatives and friends at the gate,” says Servin.

And at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Michigan, the FNT Visitors Pass program started ramping back up in March 2021 after being paused during the pandemic for at least six months. “Visitors use our website to sign up online and preregister. Upon arrival at the airport, they check in at our police station to get their pass to go through the TSA checkpoint to the airside,” says Pat Corfman, the airport’s director of Marketing, Public Relations & Air Service Development. “People are using it to see family members off at the gate—especially the elderly and the military.”

Some gate pass programs still on pause

Not all gate pass programs are back up and running just yet.

The TPA All-Access program, at Tampa International Airport began in April 2019 but was paused due the pandemic and is still on hold, according to TPA spokesman Danny Valentine. “We’ve talked about bringing it back, but we don’t yet have a firm date,” said Valentine.

And at Pittsburgh International, the airport that pioneered gate pass programs, the myPITpass program is still temporarily suspended. “We are working with TSA on a resumption date for the program,” PIT spokesman Bob Kerlick told TPG.

Photo by Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

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