The Airmall at Pittsburgh International Airport opened Tuesday to daily non-passengers for the first time since security was tightened at airports nationwide after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"It's nice, it's for the economy to be able to come here and shop," said Elizabeth Township resident Shelli Ruggier, who came to pick up her grandson from a terminal. "We're just happy we can get to a gate and greet family members, rather than them getting off and not knowing anybody."
To obtain an “Airside Pass,” guests have to show a valid I.D. and pass through TSA security checkpoints, just like passengers. They can only bring one personal item with them and have to allow ticketed flyers to move ahead of them in line, if asked.
Airport spokesman Bob Kerlick said the program was years in the making, and that the TSA finally approved the weekday trial run.
“It’s also past our summer busy travel season, past the Labor Day weekend,” Kerlick said. “We’re seeing the lines start to get a little bit shorter as we head away from the summer.”
Kerlick said he’s been fielding questions from the public about the return of airside access for years.
“The No. 1 question that we always get is, ‘when can we get back to airside, when do we get back to airside? I remember going out and watching the planes and being able to shop and eat,’” Kerlick said.
Post-9/11, PIT traditionally opened its Airmall shopping center to the public on special occasions like holidays, but the facility is the first in the country to allow the public to go airside regularly.
Non-flyers can pass through to the airside terminals Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Airport officials said the time slots were chosen in an effort to keep lines short for both ticketed and non-ticketed guests.
Kerlick said airport officials will measure success based on feedback from restaurants and shops, as well as TSA and airline personnel. The Airmall's shops and restaurants are audited by Allegheny County to ensure their prices are similar to those offered by the same businesses in non-airport locations.
Bonnie Klepfer, a fourth-year student at the University of Pittsburgh, was at the airport Tuesday to fly to London for the semester. She said her mom found out Tuesday that morning she could go through security without flying and plans to take advantage of the program in the future.
"She was really excited, saying 'We're going to be able to go with you the whole way to your gate and hang out with you,'" Klepfer said. "I thought that sounds kind of sketchy, do I want people to be able to do that?"
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants protested the plan, calling it a “bad precedent.”
Brian Morgan, vice president of APFA in Philadelphia, said by allow non-ticketed guests through to airside terminals, an important layer of security is removed.
“That also puts pressure on the airport employees now that they have non-travelling personnel milling about the airport,” Morgan said. “We’re very concerned by that.”
The Airmall opened in 1992, and was a major feature of PIT. It’s still one of the largest shopping centers in a major airport, with more than 50 businesses. But Morgan said other airports don’t understand the Airmall’s history and size, and will just see the precedent of non-flyers allowed in airside terminals.
“We have smaller airports in other locations, regional airports, that see this and they say, ‘oh, this might be an opportunity for us,’” Morgan said. “But other airports are not now at this point.”
The Allegheny County Airport Authority said the flight attendants' concerns are "misinformed," because Airmall shoppers still have to go through security like passengers and be checked against the same federal no-fly list before shopping.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.