The quintessential movie scene of every happy airport reunion takes place right at the plane’s gate. In a Hollywood movie the main love interest is reunited with the blundering boyfriend, who finally sees her as the love of his life the second she steps off the plane. What happens in reality is seeing your love ones at the baggage carousel, which is entirely anti-climatic. This at the gate reunion seems impossible now a days due to all the TSA restrictions. However, I rediscovered this Hollywood moment of the gate-side reunions and goodbyes are possible using Gate Passes. Just ask nicely and you may get one!
First off you must understand that most people hate the airport, and it would be personal hell to spend a second more than needed inside one. I am not one of these people, much like Viktor Navorski, I find the airport to be a third space, a fascinating anthropological place for people watching. It is to me an amusement in itself with people from all over the world all in one place. I love this place, especially when the food and boozes are free in the lounges.
There is not too much out there regarding the policies of the issuance of gate passes. There is a mention of TSA Security Directive 1544-01-10w (Access to Sterile Concourse for Non-Traveling Individuals) to meet or escort military members to the gate, but I cannot find the written instruction on the TSA page or anywhere. A few forums list the other reasons for getting a pass are:
- Parent/Guardian of minors under 18 traveling alone, or children that will be met at a connecting city and picked up by a parent or guardian. Note: Children do not have to participate in the Unaccompanied Minor Program for a parent or guardian to be issued a gate pass. Please see additional information about unaccompanied minors.
- Escort for elderly passengers or passengers with disabilities needing assistance. This may include someone who will push the wheelchair, provide transfer assistance in/out of the seat, provide extensive personal assistance not provided by airline personnel such as feeding/within lavatory or a sign language interpreter. Note: The adult does not need to participate in the Adult Assistance program for the person assisting them to be issued a gate pass. Please see additional information about the Adult Assistance Program.
- Oxygen providers. This may be an employee from a medical oxygen company who the customer has contracted with to provide oxygen on the ground or a friend or family member who will bring the oxygen to/from the gate area.
- Military families. Families of military service personnel are permitted through the screening checkpoint with a gate pass for both departing and arriving military family members. (per TSA Security Directive 1544-01-10w)
Again I have not found the source of this information. The only things I could find are this 2005 flyertalk forum on the issue and a Marine Corps News release. There is a 2008 post here as well that reiterates the same list above. There is a helpful reference in this 2005 livejournal post which included this scan of an United Airlines circulated instruction to comply with Security Directive 1544-01-10w:
When I moved to Okinawa I was able to get a pass from United for my brother to spend time with me before I shipped off for the next three years. They were insistent at first that it was only for unaccompanied minors, but one I mentioned the Orders and Military ID the good folks at United didn’t hold back at all and issued a gate pass for my brother. I ended up using a United Lounge pass to get him in the United Club, and they let me in with orders alone. We had a good chat over some free beers, and I went off to the south pacific for three years.
Since then I have not been so successful getting someone in when they have no ticket themselves. When my mom went to Iceland via Germany on Lufthansa they said no for me to escort her to the gate. The Lufthansa agent said if I was the one leaving on orders they could get one for her for the long goodbye. I was again denied a gate pass three days ago when I asked to escort my elderly mother again on American Airlines when she flew domestic. The priority check in desk attendant on AA said it was only for helpless children traveling as unaccompanied minors. She even suggested I come up with a better reason to walk someone to the gate other than being military. You just have to keep in mind you are asking for a favor and expect to get shot down most of the time. This is an excellent practice in rejection therapy which I highly recommend trying. In both cases, I thanked them for the consideration and said goodbye to her at the pre-check lane entrance.
Success came today on picking up my mom from the airport. I usually hate circling around in my car or using the cell phone lots because it seems like such a waste of gas and time. The worst is the Chicago Police Parking Enforcement hassling you on the arrivals level for simply pulling over and waiting. This little game is not worth it at all, and I parked in the hourly lot right in the front of the airport at a reasonable $2 a hour. This takes away the hassle of trying to find the person asking for the ride while dealing it the harassment from the traffic cops.
My 2 hours and 33 mins only cost me $4 in hourly parking, and I didn’t get hassled for idling in the unloading zone. I wasn’t caught up franticly texting my mom while avoiding double parked cars. The alternative is to pick up passengers in the departures level which is less of a pain, but coordinating is always a mess. An even better idea is these friends and family asking for rides should just use the two free $65 rides that Uber is offering before the year is over. I thought about just having my mom use the Uber, but what fun would that be?
I thought I would try again today with the novelty of the Hollywood reunion, I went ahead and walked over to the Terminal 1 United Premier Desk. My Premier Access came from my United Club Credit Card and I got to use the short friendly line. Up until Aug 2013, just a membership to the United Club got you a Gate Pass.
I guess it looked really odd since I had no luggage or even a jacket while people were checking in around me. I scoped out the situation at the desk and found a nice friendly agent that just finished going above and beyond helping someone else. The agent was very nice, I put down my CAC, showed my mom’s boarding pass on my phone and explained my situation. I wanting to pick up my mom at the gate, and help her through the airport since she was traveling alone. He asked for some details, and explained that she was near 70 and would really appreciate the escort through the airport.
He was more than happy to give me the gate pass, and asked when she was arriving. I had more than 2 hours at this point, and had plenty of time to get over from Terminal 1 to 3. He then asked why I choose United for the gate pass instead of American Airlines, and I explained that I had Silver Premier status, and they were the better airlines. He really appreciated that, I really wanted to say that they those jerks over at American Airlines kept on rejecting me. He took a look at my CAC and issued me a gate pass, entering the DOD ID number on the back into the computer. I graciously thanked him, wished him a Merry Christmas and headed right to the security line.
When I got to the TSA screener he ripped off the barcode and wrote all over it. I guess its a one time pass for sure. I went through security like the rest of the traveling passengers. I got the back scatter x-ray since I did not have pre check privileges with he gate pass. I always wondered if the United Club would let me in if I had no flight. Backup plan was to wait it out in the USO lounge in the Rotunda of Terminal 3. The United Club policy specifically states access is only granted for:
- A boarding pass for same-day travel with valid United Club membership number listed OR
- A valid United Club membership card and boarding pass for same-day travel OR
- A valid United Club membership number and boarding pass for same-day travel
I had a boarding pass that essentially was a ticket to nowhere, so I asked myself if it was even worth it. I had nothing to lose in this case. I gave them my gate pass and my United Club Card and she asked if I was even traveling today. I truthfully answered, no, that I was just meeting up with someone at the gate. No problems at all, she swiped my card and let me in!
This was the Terminal 1 location that was just newly renovated to accommodate Polaris Passengers. It’s pretty nice now with a Coca-Cola freestyle machine as well as a robot barista. Also a very keto friendly breakfast buffet.
Unfortunately there was no views of the runway from Terminal 1 so I pushed my luck at tired again at the Terminal 2 Unite Club. Here they thought I was an employee of United, but I explained that I wasn’t traveling and meeting someone at the gate. No problem at all, and they let me in again. I went to the bar and got myself a Bloody Mary and sat myself in ideal place for plane watching mode.
It was a perfect getaway moment watching the planes take off and land. I am that type of weirdo that enjoys this kind of stuff. I even suggest everyone go to Aladdin Parking in San Diego just to watch the plane land overhead. I ended up picking up my mom right at the gate, and it was a perfect Hollywood moment for sure, with the meeting her and welcoming her at the gate with a big hug. I walked her all the way to the car parked in hourly parking without incident. So dreams do come true after all!
If you want to try getting a gate pass just follow these simple rules:
- Don’t be a dick, you are asking for a favor and there is no obligation for the airlines to give you the Hollywood goodbye or welcome for you or your dependents. You also are not entitled to any special treatment so don’t act like you do.
- Be very respectful and appreciative to the gate agents or club staff, especially in asking for this favor. It’s pretty much relying on the good guy discount to get the gate pass.
- Do not lie or make untruthful statements, not worth getting your ass in trouble. See rule #1.
- The TSA directive allows the Airlines to give a gate pass, but does not obligate them to, please don’t print out the directive or this article and rub it in their face if they choose not to issue you a gate pass. See rule #1.
- Most of the time you will be rejected, but hey you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
There have been suggestions of buying a fully refundable ticket and canceling once you get through the security, but that seems like a lot of work. Also keep in mind this jerk who did this trick so many times that Lufthansa finally sued him for thousands of dollars. The fully refundable trick works, but not without the risk of lawsuits and a significant monetary investment.
Best of luck out there, and hope to hear some happy reunion stories. Look like the folks at r/longdistance relationships figured it out. More advice here, here, and here. Best advice, don’t dress like a dirtbag and shower!