No one likes waiting in long lines at the airport, but that’s just what travelers are experiencing at airports across the country this summer as a record number of Americans takes to the skies.
At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL), the busiest airport in the world, security lines often run an hour long, and airport officials are encouraging passengers to get to the airport a whopping three hours before departure.
Earlier this week, the head of the Transportation Security Administration was called before a congressional committee to explain why passengers are missing flights due to airport security delays. Some airports, including the one in Atlanta and all three airports in New York, are threatening to replace the TSA with private security firms.
The bad news: It’s only going to get worse. Travel is expected to peak this summer, and the TSA is begging Congress for more money to pay its security screeners overtime and hire new officers to keep up with the summer crush.
Regular travelers have little impact on the TSA’s efficiency, but there are steps we can take to avoid long lines and get through security faster. And the more travelers who adopt these tips, the less likely we’ll find hour-long waits at the airport.
Get PreCheck. The TSA’s PreCheck program allows low-risk passengers to use fast lines that don’t require them to remove their shoes and belts or unpack laptops and liquids from their carry-on luggage. PreCheck costs $85 per person to apply (the fee is nonrefundable even if you don’t get approved), so it may not be worthwhile for families or people who fly only a few times. To get started, apply online.
Check your bags. The head of the TSA says carry-on bags are one of the major slow-downs at airport security and the agency is experimenting with “travel light” lanes for passengers without carry-ons. Most U.S. airlines charge passengers to check their bags (Southwest is the sole holdout), which deters many people from checking.
Fly off-peak hours. The longest security lines are typically found during peak travel times. Fly early mornings between 5 and 7 a.m. or evenings after 8 p.m. to avoid the mid-day rush. Also, fewer people fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, so select those days if your travel plans permit. Holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July are some of the busiest travel times of the year, so avoid flying the days just before or after a holiday.
Check the web. The main security line may not be your best option. Many airports have multiple security entrances that other travelers may not know about. Atlanta, for instance, has north and south checkpoints in addition to the main checkpoint in the middle of the airport. Check the airport’s website for wait times at each entrance—Atlanta shows wait times for all three entrances. Additionally, some airports have connected terminals, so it may save time to enter another terminal and make your way to the terminal you’re departing from.
Dress for security. Getting undressed at security holds up the line behind you. Avoid wearing heavy outer layers that security screeners may ask you to remove. Avoid wearing anything metal that may set off the detectors. Wear slip-on shoes like Toms or Sanuks that come on and off easily.
Don’t bring liquids. The TSA allows travelers to bring 3-ounce bottles containing liquids through security, but fishing these out of your carry-on bag takes up time at the checkpoint. Leave your liquids at home, and buy sunscreen and other products at your destination or inside security. Additionally, many hotels provide complementary grooming products, so check before you travel to see what’s available.
Empty your pockets early. By now, every traveler should know that security screeners won’t let you walk through the metal detectors with anything in your pockets. Don’t wait until you get to the belt to start emptying your pockets. Put phones, coins, keys, and anything else you carry in your pockets in your purse or bag while you’re waiting in line.
Watch out for families. There is nothing more frustrating than getting in line behind an unprepared family untying shoelaces, looking for liquids and laptops in carry-on bags, and trying to fold up baby strollers. Follow the lead of business travelers and get in security lines that don’t have any children in them. (Important note: Please do this quietly without making stressed parents feel any more anxiety. Air travel can be more pleasant for everyone if we’re simply nicer to one another.)
Ask for the family lane. If you are traveling with kids, ask the agent manning the entrance to security if there’s a lane for families. Many parents report that if there’s not a family lane, security will often escort them to a priority lane such as PreCheck or the shortest line. It’s at the agent’s discretion, so ask nicely.
Keep moving. Once you’ve passed through the metal detector, grab your shoes and belongings off the belt and carry them to the benches that are typically seated just beyond security. Don’t stand at security, putting on your shoes and repacking your things, as this backs up travelers behind you.