Reader Richard T. writes:

The incident where the guy snuck through security to see his girlfriend off on a flight got me thinking: Is there a legal way for a person to go through airport security without having a boarding pass? I’m happy to submit to all manner of screenings, wandings, pat-downs, etc.

Yes, actually, there are a couple.

1. Request a gate pass from the airline
Under certain circumstances, you can obtain a gate pass, essentially a permission slip issued by an airline, which allows you to pass through security and to the gates. (Of course, you’re subject to inspection, like everyone else.) Gate passes are typically issued to parents/guardians of a minor traveling alone, to a medical assistant, to an interpreter, or to someone designated as accompanying an elderly person, usually for health reasons. And under TSA Security Directive 1544-01-10w, family of military personnel may get passes to “sterile concourse areas to escort the military passenger to the gate or to meet a military passenger’s inbound arrival at the gate.” Gate passes are free, but are issued at the airline’s discretion. Just saying you’d like to meet your friends and family? Not good enough, typically, but take your best shot!

2. Buy a refundable ticket.
Buy a fully-refundable ticket — to anywhere. Somewhere cheap, somewhere expensive, it doesn’t matter. Buy it, then check in. Print your boarding pass. Walk through security, with a perfectly legal boarding pass. Wave goodbye (or hello) to your friends from the gate. Exit the secure area of the airport. Refund the ticket, by phone or at the counter. (Remember, it was fully refundable. FULLY. But do it before the flight leaves.) It’s an annoying step, but there’s nothing illegal about it.

Richard, you asked about the legal options. So I know you’re not interested in illegal methods, like printing your own forged boarding passes. Phony passes won’t work to get you onto a plane, but they might get you through the security checkpoint. They could also get you a visit from the FBI, since they violate the U.S. code, title 18, part 1, chapter 47, ยง 1036. Needless to say, NOT RECOMMENDED unless you want to go to jail. But it’s been done…

Any other techniques out there? Hit the comments!

pixel How to get through airport security without a boarding pass

16 Responses to “How to get through airport security without a boarding pass”

  1. LongHallOwl Says:

    Often times, if you’re a member of an airlines lounge, you can get a gate pass to visit it if it is behind security. THis should work for Continental’s Presidents’ Club, United’s Red Carpet Club, etc.

  2. Oliver Says:

    So option 2 is legal, but is it ethical? You’re causing the airline you pick expenses to process your ticket and then refund it. And it’s possible you book a seat that otherwise might have been sold to someone else.

    It’s a bit like “borrowing” a laptop by buying it from a store with a liberal return policy, then using it for whatever purposes, and returning afterwards for a refund (which of course is why many stores nowadays have restocking fees of 15+% on such items as cameras, laptops and GPS).

    As soon as more and more people take advantage of the fully refundable tickets to “sneak” through security, you can bet airlines will discover a way to either discourage that or recoup their costs. Hello, refund fee! And who’s going to be penalized? Those who bought the fully refundable ticket and honestly wanted to fly but somehow couldn’t.

  3. Unexpected Traveller Says:

    There is one other way – get a job at the airport!

    The Unexpected Traveller

  4. Rob Says:

    I have to agree with Oliver on this. I still vividly remember how indignant my teenage step-daughter was when I took her to task for buying an outfit, wearing it to a party and returning it the following day for a refund. She didn’t even bother to dry-clean it! Sadly, I was unable to convey the essential wrongness of what seemed, to her, a smart move. Not much surprise she ended up doing a month in gaol a few years later for offences against property.

  5. meme (Matthew J) Says:

    Twitter Comment


    I never thought about option #2.

  6. Mark Ashley Says:

    Oliver and Rob,

    I can see your point, esp. with regard to the wrench this puts into the airlines’ inventory management, and the possibility that others would be punished if this gets abused.

    But I’m not sure it’s quite on the level of using a laptop or wearing clothes and returning them used. You never set foot on the airplane, and you’re not transported anywhere. You’re not USING the air ticket for transportation, which is what you’re purchasing.

    A former co-worker used to do this (maybe he still does, we don’t keep in touch), and his rationale was that the accounting hassle for the airlines is a “tax” for not standing up for passenger rights. He argued that the airlines should either have taken a public stand against the TSA restrictions at security, or, failing that, that the airlines should give more gate passes if they don’t want people playing the refundable ticket game. (I wonder if he uses this as leverage. “Can I have a gate pass?” “No.” “Okay, can I have a refundable ticket, that I’m going to refund in about 15 minutes?”)

    I’m honestly torn on this one.

    I’d be curious to hear others’ views. Ethical or not?

  7. Oliver Says:

    @Mark — right, people who steal often find some moral justification that makes them appear today’s Robin Hood. Why is it the airline’s responsibility to stand up for the public’s right to access the gates? How about the stores behind security — they don’t seem stand up for my rights, so is it okay to take some candy or maybe a newspaper from their shelves as a “tax”? That should teach them a lesson, right?

    Did your coworker ever contact his representatives in Washington about the restriction? I didn’t think so…

    I can’t see how you can possibly think it’s ethical. It’s lying, misrepresenting intent to fly, and it’s causing economic harm. What’s ethical about it?

  8. Mark Ashley Says:

    @Oliver,

    #1, Just so we’re clear, I’ve never actually bought a refundable ticket to get to the gate. Haven’t ever felt the need. Just sayin’.

    #2, my coworker did, in fact, write to his representatives, to the FAA, to the O’Hare administration, to the City of Chicago Department of Aviation, and to his primary airline (United). His “Robin Hood” logic may be faulty, but he certainly didn’t hold back his expression of disagreement with the policy.

    #3, I’m sorry, but it’s not lying. How is working within the parameters of a contract a lie?

    #4, economic harm. This is the crux, for me. And I just don’t see this as being on par with stealing. The closer parallel is returning a genuinely unused product, not shoplifting from a store. If — IF !! — the temporary taking-ownership of the flight ticket DOES cause the airline economic harm, then I’ll cry uncle. But I’d like to hear from an airline’s inventory management person to hear their perspective.

  9. Brian Says:

    Depending on when you purchase the ticket this whole refund thing could potentially be an economic benefit for the airline. To wit: if you purchase the ticket a month in advance the airline has your cash for an entire month (and probably longer, I have no idea how long it takes to get a refund in such situations) to do with as it sees fit. Of course its unlikely that you’d buy a ticket so far in advance simply to get past security (unless that raised fewer red flags), but maybe having your cash for less time would still be valuable for the airline. Any economic benefit to them would need to take into account credit card fees.

    Perhaps more realistically, refundable tickets are FAR more expensive than non-refundable tickets, even though the cost to the airline is the same per passenger (all other things being equal). Refundability isn’t the only benefit, but its essentially what most people pay extra for. I suspect so few people are working this loophole that the airlines come out WAY ahead in the end.

  10. Evgueni Says:

    I’m sincerely surprised someone considers returning fully refundable ticket to be unethical. Comparisons regarding consumer goods are incorrect for the following reason: “a flight ticket” is a VERY special product (mostly because is infinitely perishable right before the flight takes off) and no other widely sold product has this property. In other words, the airline does NOT sell you a seat, a flight or anything touchable – the sell you a promise to take reasonable actions to transport you. If department store sells laptops, you only can buy one _if_ they _have_ one to sell (now think about overbooked flights that happen every day). If you buy laptop T61, the seller doesn’t change keyboard or memory once you’ve started using it (now think about re-routing). So, returning fully refundable ticket is not really comparable to “borrowing” of anything.

    Another look. Business class tickets are often fully refundable. Businessmen plans do change often and thus those business people do need to buy tickets close to departure time – and pay extra money to the airlines for that convenience. That’s why the price of B-tickets does not as much as is does for economy tickets when the departure date approaches. But if businessmen plans do change often – they should buy tickets for tomorrow just because they _may_ need to go somewhere, and then return those of paid tickets that turned out to be unnecessary. There is really no difference between doing that and the method #2 described in this post. I would even go further and assume that fully refundable economy ticket literally asks to be returned as I hardly see any other reason to buy such ticket. Airlines perfectly know what share of _each_type_ of tickets will re returned/unused, so (I think) they will simply sell another ticket literally _expecting_ you to return yours later.

    One more comparison. Say, you need a visa to some country. If you buy a non-refundable ticket, and the government of that country (which of course requires to attach a _paid_ ticket to your visa application) denies your request, you’re losing a lot of money for nothing. While you can buy a fully refundable ticket, obtain a visa and then return it and buy a much cheaper non-ref. With the current visa fee being $50, and non-ref ticket cost being $1000 I have absolutely no problem saving my hard-earned money from the spontaneous desire of some government to deny me an entry to their country.

    Similarly I don’t see any problem with method #2 as long as you _really_ need to go there. I’m sure if you’re doing this for fun, TSA (I think) would find a way to put you in a no-fly list if they ever notice this (it’s easy to track even if they don’t do so today).

  11. Trish Mattson Says:

    Um, you don’t even need to buy a fully refundable ticket. All tickets may be voided within the first 24 hours of purchasing. You just need to call back the airlines/travel agent, cancel the flights and they can process this for you. True Story!

  12. Oliver Says:

    @Mark — regarding lying: what do you tell the airline when you buy the ticket? I think the covnersation — either with the agent or the website — essentially goes “I would like to fly today at 6pm from SFO to LAX on a fully refundable fare”. Yes, you could avoid the word “fly” and say “I would like to buy a ticket for flight…” — but seriously, we are adults here, how is that any different? If you don’t like the word “lie”, how about you’re misleading the airline. They are not selling tickets for the purpose of crossing the TSA barrier and you know it.

    But if you say that as long as you stay within the contract of the ticket anything you do is ethical… I guess then I’ll just book a second seat for my non-traveling wife next time I want to significantly increase my chances of an empty middle seat. Check her in online, cancel it on the phone right before the door closes and hope no one gets assigned to that seat. Heck, I might just buy, eh, borrow a row of five for my virtual family and sleep on the way to Europe.

    No, wait, I have an even better idea: I don’t want to be in coach at all, I want to have my upgrade go through. If only there weren’t those pesky last-minute business travelers buying some of those remaining C/F seats that my upgrade would otherwise clear into. But now I can easily keep them from doing that… just buy, hold and cancel.

    United not too long ago removed the ability to hold reservations without ticketing them because (they say) some people were abusing it and it was screwing with their inventory system. Everyone who used it the intended way was harmed by the removal of this feature. If enough people do what was suggested in this blog piost with fully refundable tickets or — as Trish correctly points out — abuse the 24 cancellation period, the airlines will catch on and eliminate features currently beneficial to honest travelers. And then bloggers will have fodder for another “evil airlines” story…

  13. Oliver Says:

    @Mark — oh, and regarding your coworker: my thanks for doing the right thing, too (in addition to wearing green tights)

  14. Bryan carmean Says:

    Oliver your a fuc*%ng tool bag. I eat little morally correct bit$&es like u

  15. Ransome Bishop Says:

    I am a bit confused about how buying a ticket and getting a refund is unethical. It seems to me that airlines overbook flights on a regular basis. It seems using Number 2 is merely an example of Gander Sauce, when airlines are scrupulous about not overbooking, you may have an arguement that the ticket purchase scheme is unethical, but that will happen when hell freezes over.

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