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Sea-Tac tests allowing visitors beyond security checkpoints in attempt to recreate pre-9/11 airport experience

Longer lines begin to develop as passengers wait to go through security at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Longer lines begin to develop as passengers wait to go through security at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
By Hannah Rodriguez Seattle Times

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is trying out a plan to allow nontravelers to once again access passenger-only areas that lie beyond the security checkpoints run by the federal government. That would make it among the first airports in the nation to reintroduce the practice since it was suspended in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The pilot initiative dubbed the “Visitor Pass Program,” starts Friday, allowing those without tickets to reach the domestic-travel gates provided they meet Transportation Security Administration requirements, according to an emailed statement from the airport.

“For me it is nostalgic,” Lance Lyttle, managing director of Sea-Tac airport said by phone on Thursday. “As a child I used to go to the airport and watch loved ones board the plane and depart. The fact that you can say goodbye to your loved one or child or meet them at the gate and surprise them is very exciting.”

In addition to reviving the traditional airport experience for families and friends, the plan aims to boost retailers and restaurants at the facility. The airport’s statement encourages nontravelers to take advantage of the day pass to go shopping or simply watch planes and participate in airport events, even if they’re not dropping off or picking up travelers.

To start, the program has laid out a list of restrictions. First, it will only accept 50 visitors a day, who must sign up online before 1:30 p.m. on the day before the visit. TSA will notify visitors via email if they have been pre-approved. Visitors must pick up their passes the next day at the airport with a photo identification and must go through the same security procedures as those boarding planes. Terminal access for visitors is only allowed Tuesday through Sunday between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. The trial period ends Dec. 14.

Last year, Pittsburgh International Airport became the first in the nation to introduce visitors back to the so-called air side area of its terminal. Sea-Tac sent a team to Pittsburgh’s airport to learn how to start its own program, Lyttle said.

“Pittsburgh did the heavy lifting and figured out the TSA regulations,” Perry Cooper, Sea-Tac spokesman said. “We said let’s give it a try and see how much interest we get.”

The airport will survey visitors and track responses to determine if the program should continue beyond December.

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