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Mission Family: Meeting loved ones at airport gate

Jul. 17, 2014 - 01:08PM   |  
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A decade after the Transportation Security Administration adopted a policy allowing airlines to issue gate passes to family members of troops arriving or departing for deployment, it’s not always a clear-cut or easy process.

The policy allows, but does not require, airlines to issue gate passes to family members who want to pass through security checkpoints to spend a little more time with their service member at a departure gate or meet their returning service member at an arrival gate.

One couple who recently went through a frustrating experience while trying to get a few fleeting minutes with their deploying Navy daughter wants government and airline officials to clarify the policy.

Larry and Lynne Denicola’s daughter had a 64-minute layover at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., on the way from Norfolk, Virginia, to San Diego for a Pacific deployment.

Online information about gate passes is limited, so Larry Denicola called ahead to the United Airlines customer service line, and was told it would be no problem — just request the pass at the ticket counter and show a photo ID.

He also called the USO office at Dulles, and was advised to arrive two hours early and to let USO know if there was a problem.

There was — a big one. A United customer service supervisor refused to authorize the gate passes, citing Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority rules.

It was a Sunday, so the MWAA office at the airport was closed. USO personnel were helpful, even accompanying Larry Denicola to the ticket counter, all to no avail.

Luckily, other United employees overheard the Denicolas’ plight. One called a United manager at home, who overruled the on-site supervisor. Their daughter’s flight landed while they were going through security, but they were able to spend 30 minutes with her.

“It seemed to be one person who had incorrect information,” said United spokeswoman Mary Clark. “We’re very pleased that other employees did get involved and made sure [the Denicolas] got down to the gate to see their daughter.”

The airline’s policy is to issue gate passes for family members escorting military members on deployment, whether it’s to or from their flights — and that doesn’t vary among airports, Clark said. Since this incident, United officials have sent reminders about the policy to its airport employees.

The Denicolas have received apologies from TSA, MWAA and United, but what they’d really like to see is all three entities working together to implement and publicly communicate clear and uniform policies.

Generally these gate passes are used by families who are seeing off the service member at the airport of origin, or meeting them when they return, a TSA spokesman said. The departing service member gets the boarding pass at the ticket counter as the family members get gate passes. They present them at the TSA security checkpoint while accompanying the service member. If they’re meeting the returning service member, the reunions are generally coordinated through family readiness groups with the USO.

But MWAA told the Denicolas it has not set any rules on issuing gate passes, and “all guidance on this policy is directly communicated between TSA and the airlines.”

And TSA told the couple that it is not responsible for any potential airport authority restrictions on gate passes, and suggested they talk to United and MWAA.

While information on the TSA’s policy is on the agency’s website, the policy itself is not a public document, a spokesman said. USO spokeswoman Gayle Fishel suggests families call their airline in advance to ask about gate passes; check on whether their airport has a USO center on site or nearby that help; and build in extra time — just in case.

Karen Jowers is married to a military retiree.

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