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How to Navigate the Busiest US Airport Terminals This Summer

July 21, 2019
8 min read
How to Navigate the Busiest US Airport Terminals This Summer
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Finding cheap airfare isn’t the only challenge facing travelers this summer. Terminals from Boston to Los Angeles will be packed, as airlines and airports support what is expected to be the busiest summer on record for air travel.

While the heavy loads bode well for the airlines, airports and the economy as a whole, it also means passengers should be sure to arrive at the airport early, instead of making a last-minute sprint to the departure gate.

More than 257 million passengers are expected to fly on US carriers between June 1 and August 31, an increase of 3.4% compared to the same time last year, according to the industry advocacy group Airlines for America. The organization says airlines are adding an average of 111,000 seats per day, compared to 2018, in order to handle the additional capacity.

“It is recommended that passengers arrive two hours in advance of a domestic flight and three hours prior to an international flight to ensure that they have ample time to account for traffic, parking and navigating through the airport,” said Lisa Farbstein, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Also, she added, “It is advisable to check in for a flight ahead of time, either on the air carrier’s website or mobile app, to allow even more time to get through security and relax at the gate.”

In addition to the TSA's general advice, The Points Guy reached out to leaders at the nation’s busiest airports (based off of 2018 U.S. Department of Transportation data on aircraft boarding) to get specific guidance concerning their facilities, including how early staff recommend you arrive prior to your departure and any innovative approaches you could use to minimize wait times.

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL)

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL) is the nation’s busiest airport, with more than 51 million passengers per year. Officials there -- like the TSA -- urge passengers to arrive two hours prior to domestic flights and three hours early for flights headed to international cities. The summer surge is being attributed to full aircraft.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

With a passenger count of about 42.5 million passengers boarding annually, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) also follows the TSA recommendation of arriving two hours prior to departure for a domestic flight and three hours for an international one.

“However, we have been telling people that they really, really, really need to add at least 30 minutes to whatever their regular routine is” during the especially busy summer season, said Heath Montgomery, public relations director, Los Angeles World Airports.

Montgomery said the airport has a new automated Twitter account, @FlyLAXStats, which uses artificial intelligence and other data to update TSA wait times, parking and traffic every 15-30 minutes. He also suggests international flyers look into using TSA’s Mobile Passport to speed up entry into the United States.

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Chicago O'Hare Airport (ORD)

Passengers at Chicago O’Hare (ORD), the nation’s third-busiest airport, are being urged to follow the TSA guidelines (arrive two hours early for domestic departures, and three hours ahead for international flights). The same holds true for Chicago Midway (MDW) closer to downtown.

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), passengers also are advised to arrive two hours early for a domestic departure and three hours earlyfor international destinations.

The airport is the nation’s fourth-busiest, with 32.7 million passengers annually. Flights have been added to the summer schedule, contributing to the potential for terminal congestion.

For customers using terminals C and D, the airport is employing a real-time tracking system to alert them of the wait times at TSA checkpoints. The display screens will also note the waits at other nearby checkpoints and the approximate walking time to alternative locations. The system utilizes artificial intelligence and special heat and movement sensors to determine the movements of flyers and their speed while waiting in line. Updates will be provided every 60 seconds and will be expanded to the remaining terminals in the future.

Denver International Airport (DEN)

At number five in the nation, handling more than 31 million passengers, Denver International Airport (DEN) suggests passengers arrive inside the terminal two hours prior to their departure, regardless if they are taking a domestic or international flight. Officials expect surges between 5-10am and from 1-4pm.

Passengers taking commuter rail or bus service to the airport often can check luggage directly at the transit center instead of inside the main terminal. The service is available on domestic flights on Southwest, United, Delta and American. Passengers must arrive at least 90 minutes prior to departure in order to utilize the service. Passengers parking in airport shuttle lots will now be able to check their bags on the spot, allowing them to go directly to security once at the main terminal.

The airport is also using a new screening device at the North security checkpoint, which no longer will require passengers to hold their hands and arms over their heads. Known as Enhanced Advanced Imaging Technology, the technology has updated detection capabilities and may help to increase efficiency. The same checkpoint will also have two new automated screening lanes.

John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK)

At the nation’s sixth-busiest airport, New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) as well as the other New York area airports (LaGuardia and Newark), the Port Authority is not offering suggested arrival times for departing passengers, other than telling flyers to allow extra time. The airports are expecting higher passenger volume this summer but not necessarily additional service.

With parking expected to be at a premium, users can pre-book a parking space online at Newark, LaGuardia and JFK. In addition, passengers can sign up for airport alerts using this link.

San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

San Francisco International is expected to see more international passengers this summer. As the nation’s seventh-busiest airport, accommodating 27.7 million passengers annually, flyers are recommended to arrive two hours prior for a domestic flight and three hours early if they’re leaving the United States.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)

Seattle’s International Airport known as SeaTac (SEA) is number eight on the list of busy airports. With larger aircraft being used on some routes in the summer months, it also endorses the TSA guidelines (two hours prior to a domestic flight, three hours for an international journey). In addition to posting checkpoint wait times on its mobile app, it’s promoting a concept called “Think Opposite” that suggests outbound passengers be dropped off at the arrivals level and inbound passengers be picked up at the departures section, part of an effort to make passenger flows more efficient.

McCarran International Airport (LAS)

The same arrival times are also endorsed by officials at McCarran International (LAS) in Las Vegas. With 23.5 million passengers annually, the ninth-busiest airport in the country this summer is experiencing new routes and seasonal service from international carriers as well as full flights in general, according to a spokeswoman.

Orlando International Airport (MCO)

For passengers at Orlando International Airport (MCO), the tenth-busiest, officials advise arriving two hours before flight time. However, that means actually being in the terminal, stresses airport spokesperson Rod Johnson. Johnson notes finding a parking spot can be daunting, and that you should expect to spend anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes to finding a space.

Logan Airport (BOS)

Boston’s Logan Airport (BOS) suggests passengers arrive 90 minutes ahead for domestic flights, and two and a half hours early for international ones. Flyers using the Logan Express bus from Boston’s Back Bay to the airport are able to access a preferred lane at the security checkpoint.

Bottom Line

While the TSA advocates for pre-screening programs such as PreCheck and has installed automated bin and belt systems at 16 airports, its staffing is not immune from the renewed focus on security efforts by the Department of Homeland Security at the southwest border. The new emphasis could snarl security during this summer spurt if agents are redeployed away from airports.

In a statement, the TSA contends “increased traveler volume this summer may present challenges as resources continue to deploy to support the Department. We will always maintain our highest security standards, and the agency will make every effort to minimize operational impacts.”

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Featured image by picture alliance via Getty Image