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Tampa airport to allow non-fliers to try its airside cuisine

TAMPA — When Tampa International Airport brought in 70 new restaurants, bars, shops and spas as part of its billion-dollar makeover, it went looking for distinctive local brands: Mise en Place, Goody Goody, RumFish Grill, Ducky's.

"The problem was, the people who were really excited about it said, 'Hey, wait a minute: I can't go out the airside to try out that restaurant. What's up with that?' " Tampa International Airport chief executive officer Joe Lopano said Tuesday.

So airport officials began talking with Transportation Security Administration officials. This coming Saturday, the airport will launch an "all access" program to allow a limited number of non-travelers to go to the airsides once a week.

This will mark the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed air travel that people without airplane tickets will be allowed to go unescorted to the airsides at Tampa International. (As it stands, in special situations, such as a non-traveling parent accompanying a traveling child, the airport will issue a gate pass, also called a companion pass.) And officials said Tampa International is the third airport in the country to try this kind of program.

"To those feeling left out ... we heard you," Lopano said. Now families, foodies or even couples on a date can try char-grilled oysters at the airport Ulele, sample locally brewed beer at Cigar City or shop for gifts — except for alcohol and tobacco items — at the airport's duty-free and other stores.

"We have the only Potbelly Sandwich Shop in whole state of Florida at Airside E," Lopano said, "and we're the only airport I know that brews beer, at Airside C."

FORMER TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC LAURA REILEY: We tried the new restaurants at Tampa International Airport, and we're full

Here's how it works: Residents have to sign up at at least 24 hours before the Saturday they want to visit. That's so their names can be matched against the federal no-fly list. The airport will allow 100 non-travelers — 25 at each of its four airsides — to get a gate pass in the main terminal and go through TSA security from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every Saturday. They'll have to abide by all the same rules about the number of bags they bring and the items they can carry as travelers catching a flight. Once on the airside, they can eat or shop wherever they'd like, or just watch planes and people come and go.

Only two other airports have tried offering a gate pass for non-fliers to use their secure areas, officials said. Pittsburgh International Airport launched its program in August 2017. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport saw about 1,100 users during a six-week pilot program late last year. After some tweaks, it hopes to re-start the program some time this year, airport spokesman Perry Cooper said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The airport is starting small so that the airside visitors don't get in the way of passengers who need to get through security and catch flights.

"If this program is successful, we'll look to expand it," said John Tiliacos, the airport's executive vice president of operations and customer service.

The airport expected that bringing in new shops and restaurants would increase concessions revenues, which are based on a percentage of sales, and it has, airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps said.

In 2014, before the redevelopment began, the airport took in $19.1 million in concessions revenue. Last year, that number had risen to $24 million. This year, it is on a pace to reach $27 million.

"Leave it to the Tampa International Airport to look at this through their customers' eyes," Mise en Place owner Maryann Ferenc said. It's not uncommon for a regular at her restaurant near downtown Tampa to say they would like the try The Cafe by Mise en Place at Airside F, which handles international flights, but can't get through security.

"Now we can say to them, 'Oh yes, you can.' "

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Contact Richard Danielson at or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times