It’s an exciting time for aviation enthusiasts, as visitor pass programs are making a triumphant return to airport terminals across the United States, becoming available in far more airports than ever before. These programs, which allow non-travelers to explore airport terminals, watch planes take off and land, accompany family members to their gate, and enjoy most terminal amenities, were largely suspended during the height of the pandemic. However, now they are back in full swing, with many airports embracing this trend for the first time. Today marks a milestone on this front as Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) officially launches its new visitor pass program.
The Resurgence of Visitor Pass Programs
Before we dive into the details of XNA’s program, it’s worth noting the resurgence of visitor pass programs nationwide. While a few airports offered these passes pre-pandemic, most had to suspend them due to health and safety concerns. But as travel steadily recovers, these programs are coming back stronger (and more numerous) than ever before, offering members of the general public an airport experience reminiscent of the pre-9/11 days, where anyone – not just ticketed passengers – could proceed through the security checkpoint and enjoy all the airport had to offer. Considering many U.S. airports have improved dramatically in terms of amenities and quality since then, this is a great trend we hope to see spread across the country.
U.S. airports are uniquely positioned to offer an experience like this; while it’s great that many major airports in other parts of the world like Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) offer sterile international-to-international transit, this would make a visitor pass program logistically impossible in much of the terminal, as that would mean comingling with individuals who have not been processed through customs.
What You Need to Know About Visitor Pass Programs
Visitor pass programs typically share some common characteristics, although rules may vary slightly from one airport to another:
- Advance Registration: Usually, visitors must register between 24 hours and up to 7 days in advance, with a few exceptions like TUL (Tulsa International Airport), which permits same-day registration.
- Restrictions on Entry: Most airports limit entry to designated hours, typically not permitting entry after about 7-9 p.m. local time. Some restrict visitors to only certain terminals or checkpoints, or require visitors to leave by a certain time (though it’s unclear how this could be enforced).
- Limited Capacity: To maintain a comfortable experience, airports often cap the number of visitors per terminal per day, typically ranging from 25 to 75 individuals. Interestingly, these programs are often not widely advertised, so capacity is often a non-issue.
- Security Measures: Safety is, of course, always the #1 priority. All visitors are vetted against the SECURE FLIGHT database and must pass through TSA screening, just like ticketed passengers. This process ensures that visitor pass holders are not on any no-fly lists, and can’t bring prohibited items into the sterile area.
- QR Code for Entry: Once successfully vetted, visitors typically receive a QR code via email to present instead of a boarding pass when going through TSA screening. You still need to present a valid form of government-issued ID along with this QR code, just as if you were flying.
- PreCheck No Good: Non-ticketed visitors usually need to use the general screening lane, and cannot take advantage of TSA PreCheck or CLEAR when entering the security checkpoint.
It goes without saying that you should always check the details of your local airport’s program beforehand, as each airport has its own rules and procedures.
Airports Offering Visitor Pass Programs
Several airports across the country are currently offering visitor pass programs, and here are some of them:
- MCO (Orlando International Airport) – Available only at the recently-opened Terminal C.
- DTW (Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport) – One of the oldest programs, reinstated post-pandemic.
- TUL (Tulsa International Airport) – My home airport, which recently implemented a visitor program.
- XNA (Northwest Arkansas National Airport) – Today marks the launch of this new program.
- SEA (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport)
- FNT (Flint Bishop International Airport)
- ONT (Ontario International Airport)
- SNA (John Wayne Airport)
- MSY (Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport)
Before the pandemic, a few other airports also offered visitor pass programs:
- TPA (Tampa International Airport) – Although TPA All Access was previously available, there’s no indication of it returning. TPA’s website states the program is suspended as passenger numbers are being evaluated, and has said this for well over a year.
- DFW (Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport) – This program, previously only available to registered guests of the Grand Hyatt DFW, seems to have quietly disappeared.
XNA’s New Guest Pass Program
Now, let’s turn our attention to the newest addition to the visitor pass program family – XNA. After months of anticipation, XNA has officially launched its “guest pass” system, allowing non-flying guests to enjoy the airport’s restaurants and shops while being in the secure area.
Unlike many airports which require pre-registration online, XNA has opted for a registration via a kiosk. The guest pass kiosk is conveniently located next to the baggage claim in the airport lobby. To obtain a pass, guests simply answer a few questions and scan their photo IDs. Once the kiosk generates the pass, visitors can proceed through airport security.
In an article on 5NewsOnline.com, Olivia Moore, spokesperson for XNA, emphasizes that guest pass holders get access to all the amenities that boarding pass holders do, except they don’t board a plane. This includes exploring vendor options, plane-spotting, and trying out the new coffee robot, “Bionics by Onyx,” set to be operational in the coming weeks. This innovative robot will serve specialty drinks using Onyx coffee 24/7, adding a local touch to the airport experience (and if you’ve never had Onyx coffee, it’s probably the best I’ve ever tasted domestically). “When we announced it, a lot of people were extremely excited. I mean, it’s not every day that you get to say goodbye to your family members while seeing them get on the plane to say goodbye,” Moore said.
In conclusion, the return of visitor pass programs in U.S. airports is a welcome development for travelers and aviation enthusiasts. With XNA joining the ranks, it’s clear that airports are increasingly recognizing the value of offering unique experiences to the non-traveling public. So, if you’re looking for a new way to spend a day at the airport, or want to see off a loved one, consider exploring a visitor pass program at a participating airport near you.