Before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, virtually anyone could wander into American airports, including friends and loved ones who wanted to give travelers a last-minute hug and kiss before they boarded the plane at their gate. Today, those sentimental moments are a distant memory. Only passengers with a boarding pass and ID are allowed to go through security checkpoints.
But now, one southern California airport is bringing back a taste of pre-9/11 travel with a new program allowing non-ticketed individuals to meet or send off loved ones at their gate.
Ontario International Airport, which is situated about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is launching a new initiative called ONT+. After securing approval, non-travelers will be able to access areas that are beyond the security checkpoints run by the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Several other airports already offer similar programs, including John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California; Detroit Metropolitan Airport; Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport; and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
“We all remember the excitement of being able to meet arriving family and friends as they get off the plane,” says Dean Brown, the airport’s public safety administrator, in a statement. “ONT+ is a way to bring back some of that experience from decades ago, in a safe and secure manner.”
Meeting loved ones aside, the program could boost the airport’s revenue, as non-travelers will have access to restaurants, bars, lounges and shops beyond the security checkpoints.
“You have some time to enjoy your family and spend some money in there—it’s a good idea,” traveler Emma Nole tells ABC7’s Jessica De Nova.
While the TSA is now a staple of air travel, the organization is only about 20 years old. It was officially established on November 19, 2001, about a month after the 9/11 attacks. Until that point, private contractors had handled airport security.
“Before 9/11, security was almost invisible, and it was really designed to be that way,” Jeff Price, an aviation security expert at Metropolitan State University of Denver, told NPR’s David Schaper last year. “It was designed to be something in the background that really wasn’t that noticeable and definitely did not interfere with aircraft or airport operations.”
Ontario International Airport’s new program is free, but it does require non-ticketed individuals to complete several steps to access the airport’s post-security areas. Within a week of their intended airport visit, participants must fill out an online application with their name, date of birth, gender and contact information, as well as the date, time and terminal they wish to visit. Only a limited number of visitor slots are available each day, per the airport’s website.
All approved visitors must pass through the security checkpoint and follow all of the TSA’s rules, just like any ticketed traveler. For now, visitors cannot use expedited screening programs like TSA PreCheck or Clear in combination with the ONT+ program.
The Ontario airport’s executives worked closely with TSA administrators to get ONT+ up and running, which suggests that other airports may be able to follow suit with similar programs.