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PIT wants non-passengers allowed past security to shop

| Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, 10:16 p.m.
Travelers pass by the AJ Armani store at the Airmall in the Pittsburgh International Airport, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014,
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Travelers pass by the AJ Armani store at the Airmall in the Pittsburgh International Airport, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014,
Travelers pass by the Hugo Boss store at the Airmall in the Pittsburgh International Airport, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014,
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Travelers pass by the Hugo Boss store at the Airmall in the Pittsburgh International Airport, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014,
Travelers pass by a large screen monitor in the Airmall at the Pittsburgh International Airport, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014,
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Travelers pass by a large screen monitor in the Airmall at the Pittsburgh International Airport, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014,
Travelers pass by the Spirit of the Red Horse store at the Airmall in the Pittsburgh International Airport, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014,
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Travelers pass by the Spirit of the Red Horse store at the Airmall in the Pittsburgh International Airport, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014,
Thanksgiving travelers pass through security checkpoints at the Pittsburgh International Airport on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Thanksgiving travelers pass through security checkpoints at the Pittsburgh International Airport on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014.

Officials at Pittsburgh International Airport are pushing the Transportation Security Administration to allow the non-ticketed public beyond security, a rarity in high-security post-9/11 American airports.

Airport officials are planning a TSA-approved open house Dec. 6 that would allow people without airline tickets to go beyond the security checkpoint and visit shops and restaurants they can't access now, the second such event in two years and reminiscent of times before 9/11-related security changes. They'll also have access to gate areas.

“I think it's a good idea. It would be nice to say, ‘Hey, I'll meet you at Friday's,' and sit down and have a cup of coffee while you wait to pick someone up,” John Harrison, 72, of West Deer said as he stood outside the security area Wednesday waiting to pick up his son and grandchildren.

“Years ago, my wife would pick me up at the gate and the kids would watch the planes come in. It was nice,” he said.

Pittsburgh airport officials are pressing TSA to allow the public more access. TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy said the agency received a proposal from Pittsburgh International for more frequent public visits and is reviewing it. He couldn't immediately confirm that Pittsburgh is the first airport to have an open house, but he said he doesn't know of any others in the Northeast.

“We're exploring what options may be available,” McCarthy said. “There have been proposals from the Allegheny County Airport Authority as far as having them do this on a more routine basis. It's something we're looking at and making sure we have the right resources in place.”

Airport security expert Art Kosatka, CEO of Olney, Md.-based Transecure Inc., said the open house can be done safely.

“Personally, I agree with it as long as everyone is going through screening. One argument against it is that the security line is already long,” Kosatka said. “It makes sense to try it for one day and see what, if anything, got screwed up.”

Kosatka, who formerly worked for the TSA and Federal Aviation Administration, said for TSA to permanently allow such a move, it would likely need more agents to handle greater numbers of people through security and identity screenings. “If it works, of course, you're going to have 37 other cities saying we want to do that, too,” Kosatka said.

Allegheny County Airport Authority acting Executive Director Jim Gill said he believes it can work.

“It's (the open house) a Saturday afternoon. We don't want to squeeze people through during a busy time, and this is an opportunity to do it during a less crowded time,” he said. “The feedback we hear is that folks not traveling would like to come out to the airport, not just for shopping and dining, but this is a chance to come out and appreciate some of the improvements.”

The open house is scheduled noon to 6 p.m. and will feature free parking for open house-goers, Gill said. People headed for the airside terminal will have to go through security but will have a separate line at the alternate checkpoint on the upper level of the landside terminal, a TSA spokesman said.

Those planning to get in are asked to register online so agents can conduct the same advance security checks flyers get when they buy tickets, Gill said. Walk-ups will not be turned away but may have to wait while they are processed.

The airport offered a similar event two years ago that attracted 600 people. Guests staying at the airport Hyatt Hotel are always eligible to get a pass to go beyond security after clearance, Gill said.

Gill said the airport would like to do open houses on a more frequent basis with the cooperation and approval of the TSA. “We'd love to see it happen, but we understand the highest priority is aviation security,” he said.

Increasing the number of airport visitors would likely benefit the Air Mall and its merchants. The airport's core recently underwent a $10 million renovation and several stores opened this year. Flooring designed by a Carnegie Mellon University artist is being installed.

“I think people are interested in having access to our great variety of shops. This will give all those yearning to get airside a chance without buying a ticket,” said Air Mall spokeswoman Tina Richardson. “As long as the proper security is in place — obviously that's paramount.”

Air Mall business nosedived after US Airways dumped Pittsburgh as a hub a decade ago, though revenue rebounded somewhat in recent years.

Passenger traffic dipped from a peak of 20 million passengers in 2001 to fewer than 7.9 million passengers last year, its lowest total since 7.3 million people flew out of the former Greater Pittsburgh International Airport in 1975. This year, numbers are on the rebound as the airport reported higher passenger traffic for five straight months through September, up 1.5 percent compared to the same time period last year.

Mt. Lebanon resident Mariellen Kerr, who was flying Wednesday, stopped by the Johnston & Murphy clothing store.

“I don't think we'd come out that day (Dec. 6) because we live near other (shopping) options, but I do think it's a good idea. There's a lot of higher-end stores here that are not available anywhere else,” Kerr said.

Harriet Mork, 65, of Wilkinsburg, stopped at Erwin Pearl jewelry store en route to her gate on her way to Florida. She said she'd come out on Dec. 6.

“It's something to do,” she said.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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