WASHINGTON (Dec. 11, 2009) -- It's a scene that's played out in airports across the country numerous times in the past eight years: Families and servicemembers clinging to each other, either sad to leave or happy and vowing to never let go again.
The emotion always is appropriate, but the location of the scene - just beyond the airline ticket counters and before the security checkpoint - robs the actors of precious minutes with loved ones. Those lost minutes are unnecessary, at least as far as the Transportation Security Administration is concerned, a TSA spokesman said.
"TSA permits the airlines to offer a gate pass to family members of arriving or departing U.S. servicemembers," Greg Soule said. "So, family members who want to accompany a ... servicemember being deployed to the boarding gate, or greet them [as they return] from deployment at the arrival gate may receive passes to enter the secure area of the airport."
Though TSA allows this practice, the final decision rests with the airlines, from which family members must request the passes. Each airline, and possibly even airport, has its own rules and procedures, Soule said.
Families interested in obtaining a gate pass need to check with the airline before arriving at the airport to determine the exact rules and procedures.
"It's an airline procedure," Soule said. "It is something that TSA has permitted the airlines to do, though we have security regulations that we provide to the airlines.
"Typically, only passengers who are flying and have a boarding pass are allowed to pass through security," he added.
TSA makes this allowance out of support for the armed forces, Soule said.
Though military family members with gate passes can pass through security, they must adhere to all security regulations. This includes removing coats, jackets and shoes, and the liquids regulation. Anything of a liquid or gel consistency must be 3.4 ounces or less and be sealed in a quart-sized storage bag to pass through security, Soule said.
Each family member would have to present the gate pass as well as a valid government-issued identification card, Soule added.
TSA doesn't keep statistics on how frequently military families take advantage of this opportunity. Volunteers at Washington-Dulles International Airport's USO lounge said they are not frequently asked about the program or for assistance in obtaining the passes.
Separations and reunions are emotional enough in normal situations, but with the holidays in full swing, they're even more poignant. And thanks to the TSA and cooperating airlines, they can be more positive.
"We're happy to do this and make this small exemption," he added, noting that TSA officials recognize that military families, as well as servicemembers, make sacrifices for the country.
The TSA has no jurisdiction overseas, so U.S. military family members wishing to see off or meet their servicemember at a foreign airport are encouraged to check with the airline for local policy.
The policy on gate passes is available on the Transportation Security Administration's Web site under the heading "Accommodations for U.S. Military Personnel."