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No Ticket? No Problem: Tampa’s Airport Invites Non-Flyers To Its Terminals

Ulele restaurant in Tampa International Airport.
Ulele is one of several Tampa area resturants and shops with locations at Tampa International Airport.

There was a time when airport food was bland and overpriced at best, or simply awful at worst.


But over the last few years, Tampa International Airport has worked on improving its offerings. Ulele, Cigar City Brewing, and Columbia Restaurant are among the local favorites that now have airport locations. 


"Every time we announced a new opening, people would be like, 'Oh I love that place, wish I could go there,'" said airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps. "And they would even ask, is there a way to get to these restaurants without a ticket? And we would say, 'No, sorry you’ve got to have a ticket.'" 

Non-flyers no longer need a ticket. They just need to sign up in advance to go through security every Saturday.


It's called TPA All Access. Richard Holmes took part recently. He arrived at the airport with his girlfriend, Jenn Thai, who was leaving town. Usually they would say their goodbyes just before security. 


"We're on Airside C, so we’re planning on going to Ulele before I take off, so that will be nice," Thai said.  


"I can actually see her off at a gate, like they used to do," Holmes added. 


It may sound like a novel idea, but it's one that Tampa borrowed. 


"In Pittsburgh, the airport was built as a destination for both flyers and non-flyers alike," said Bob Kerlik, spokesman for Pittsburgh International Airport. 


When it opened in the early 1990s, the massive terminal was both a hub for USAir (later U.S. Airways, now American Airlines) and a mall open to the public. It was called, cleverly enough, the AirMall. Then came the attacks of 9/11, and stricter security measures. But Kerlik said locals had fond memories of shopping at the airport.  


"Ever since then, we'd been getting questions from the community," Kerlik said. "This is something that Pittsburghers wanted and something frankly Pittsburghers were used to doing." 


Since 2017, non-flyers have been able to visit the AirMall if they show ID and get a pass. Kerlik said it took years of negotiation for that to happen. 


"We had to work very closely with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). We worked with them over several years, demonstrated to them that this program would have no reduction in security and no effect on wait times for passengers," he said.  


Tampa's airport also worked with TSA. Participants are checked against the same databases and no-fly lists as paying passengers. They're also subject to the same security screening. And Tampa's program is limited. It's only available on Saturdays for the first 100 people who sign up.  


Ramon Lo, publisher of Airport Experience News, said an open access program wouldn't work for every airport, but for Tampa it makes sense. 


"You're getting more flights, more business there," he said. "Tampa is really upscaling and elevating its experience. So why not look at a way to invite the public in?"  


That could mean more revenue. But Nipps said the airport isn't expecting to make money from the program.  


"It's not enough people to really make that big of an impact on our sales," she said. "Also, we don't make you spend money when you come here. If you want to come out here and just kind of hang out at the airport, you're allowed to do that." 

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