PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh International (search) could become the nation's first major airport to get the OK to abandon the post-Sept. 11 rule that says only ticketed passengers are allowed past security checkpoints.
Federal security officials are considering allowing people once more to say their hellos and goodbyes to friends and loved ones at the gate.
Airport officials and western Pennsylvania's congressional delegation have pushed for two years for the change for reasons of money and passenger convenience.
What happens here could become a model for other airports.
"This is new, this is exciting, because we're basically rewriting the security directives in order to allow nonticketed passengers to go through security," said JoAnn Jenny, spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which runs the airport.
Pittsburgh is a strong candidate for the experiment for two reasons: It has a centralized security checkpoint in one terminal. And it has a full-scale shopping mall that has suffered a drop-off in business because it is reachable only by ticketed passengers.
If the change is approved, people without tickets will have to go through security just like passengers. They will be checked with metal detectors and may have to empty their pockets and handbags and take off their shoes.
"I think you'd find most Americans would agree and go along with this idea," said Brian Muth of Reynoldsville.
Muth and his wife are hosting an exchange student from Ecuador, Lorena Lopez. On Tuesday, Sharon Muth bid a tearful farewell, on this side of security, to the girl's parents after they paid a short visit.
And Muth cried again when she thought of bringing Lorena back to the airport in June, knowing the teen might be alone when she boards her flight home.
"Lorena's just become part of our family," she said, dabbing tears with a tissue.
Officials with the federal Transportation Security Administration (search) met recently with Pittsburgh officials and expect to review a rough draft of the plan later this spring. It could take effect by summer if approved by the Homeland Security Department (search), Jenny said.
Certain issues still need to be worked out, such as how to prevent the people without tickets from holding up passengers during peak travel times.
"There's a customer service benefit to be had here, but at the end of the day, the security of the flying public at the Pittsburgh airport is going to come before anything else," said Ann Davis, TSA's Northeast regional spokeswoman. "And I think passengers appreciate that."
In the security crackdown in the weeks after Sept. 11, the Federal Aviation Administration said the nation's airports may no longer allow people without tickets past security checkpoints. It was among several security measures, some of which have since been relaxed, such as a ban on curbside pickups and the parking of cars close to terminals.
In certain hardship cases — say, if an airline passenger is disabled, cannot speak English or is a child — a friend or family member can get a pass to go through security and accompany the traveler.
At the Pittsburgh airport, for example, Lorena Lopez accompanied her parents Tuesday because they do not speak English. And Jackie Crusan was allowed to go through security with her friend, Devin Seeger, because he broke both his legs while performing in a dirt bike show in Pennsylvania.
And in January, the TSA started allowing military families to accompany soldiers to airline gates.
But everybody else still says their goodbyes on this side of the security apparatus, which experts say discourages some people from traveling and keeps well-wishers from spending more money in the nation's airports.
One industry expert said the Pittsburgh plan makes sense because airports need all the revenue they can find.
If the airport can make more money from merchant leases and parking fees, it can cut the rates airlines are charged to use the terminal, said Stephen Van Beek of the Airport Councils International-North America, a trade group.
That revenue is especially important in Pittsburgh, where US Airways, which controls about 80 percent of the gates, has been threatening to leave because of higher-than-average gate fees.
The Pittsburgh airport has a genuine shopping mall, Airmall, inside the main terminal, with 100 stores and restaurants -- not just concession stands and souvenir shops, but brand-name establishments with the kind of prices found at an ordinary shopping center.
Mark Knight, regional manager for Airmall operator BAA USA Inc., said business is down about 12 percent in the past year. He said nearly half of that that is due to the security rule, while the rest is attributable to a drop in passengers caused by US Airways, which is cutting flights because of the gate fees.
"In this economy that other 4 or 5 percent could mean the difference between success and failure" for an Airmall business, Knight said.