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Flying on Friday or Sunday? You may want to get to the airport earlier

March 28, 2022
6 min read
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As U.S. COVID-19 case numbers in March fell to a fraction of those seen at the height of the omicron surge, airports across the country have seen some of their busiest days of the pandemic. As airports have filled back up again, though, there’s been a shift in who's traveling. That has prompted big changes in which airports are seeing record numbers, and when those crowds are showing up.

It's something you might want to consider as you plan your next trip to the airport.

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The numbers are up (from the last 2 years at least)

TPG reported earlier this month that March saw the Transportation Security Administration’s busiest day during the pandemic, if you don’t count the Wednesday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving 2021. On top of that, throughout the month, higher passenger volume has demonstrated signs of a significant rebound in travel.

For perspective, here’s a comparison of how many passengers the TSA screened at U.S. checkpoints this March, last March and March 2019 (prior to the pandemic).

March 2022

  • 17 days with more than 2 million passengers screened (as of March 27).
  • Every day of the month with 1 million or more screened.

March 2021

  • 0 days with 2 million or more passengers screened.
  • 26 days with between 1 and 2 million.
  • 5 days with fewer than 1 million.

March 2019

  • 30 of 31 days with 2 million or more passengers screened.

What these numbers show is that travel has risen significantly compared to this time last year, but still trails 2019 levels. That is, in some places. There are some airports setting all-time records.

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Leisure travel rebound

March means spring break vacations for many families across the country, and the data suggests that’s exactly what's happening.

Mark Howell, TSA spokesperson for the southeast U.S., told TPG that while nationwide, passenger traffic is still not at 2019 levels, the agency is seeing “pockets of volume” in parts of the country. At the moment, these pockets are especially heavy at popular spring vacation destinations.

Howell pointed out that Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR) is seeing 100% year-over-year increases in passenger volume in some cases.

Related: Tips for surviving spring break travel

Miami International Airport (MIA) reported its single busiest day ever on March 20, when 167,000 travelers passed through. Over the past month, the airport reports passenger volume is up 17% compared to pre-pandemic levels. The record numbers have airport officials calling on passengers to arrive three hours early for domestic flights.

Howell points to low-cost airline options as a driving force behind some of this volume at certain airports. Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Southwest Airlines account for a significant portion of the flights at Myrtle Beach.

Related: 6 ways to improve your low-cost flight experience

Meanwhile, Airlines for America, an organization that advocates for the largest carriers in the U.S., reported March 26 that while new ticket sales are rising, demand for corporate travel continues to lag behind.

Miami International Airport (MIA), shown here in March 2020, recently saw its busiest day ever. (Photo by Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

Impact on your trip to the airport

With leisure travel spiking but business travel trailing behind, this has had an impact on what passengers will find at the airport, according to Howell. Namely, which days are busiest seems to have shifted a bit.

“The paradigm used to be, (with) business travelers, Monday mornings were really busy. It has switched over,” Howell said, noting that Fridays and Sundays now tend to be the busiest days of the week as flyers travel for the purposes of weekend getaways.

Nationwide, Howell said TSA checkpoint lines haven't been too long. However, he did point to occasions where a surge in passengers can lead to some delays. One thing he noted has caused more delays of late -- as passenger traffic has trended more toward leisure travelers who might be less experienced flying -- is bags being checked and rescreened because of prohibited items, notably liquids.

Related: 10 ways to get through security faster

“The sunscreen,” he said, lamenting a common item caught at checkpoints that must then be discarded.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in November 2021. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

“When we find them we have to pull the bag, remove the item and rescreen it,” he told TPG. “As you can imagine, in a busy part of the day, that can slow things down considerably.”

He encourages travelers to do a thorough review of the TSA’s rules for prohibited items before heading to the airport.

Howell explained that the TSA does what it can to prepare for an influx of traffic in areas that might not normally see that level of volume. Certainly, popular spring break destinations would fall in this category. He also pointed to the impact an event like the upcoming Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, has on the regional airport there.

Working with the airlines to hear where travel is likely to surge in a particular area, Howell said the TSA will shift staffing with the help of a national deployment force in order to open up additional lanes at checkpoints.

Bottom line

In its weekend report, Airlines for America said there are signs of business travel trending upward: Corporate travel has steadily risen over the last six weeks, the organization reported.

For the time being, though, there’s a good chance your fellow passengers at the airport are headed somewhere for fun. That means, as you plan how much time to give yourself at the airport before departure, you may want to give special consideration to the crowds on Fridays and Sundays.

Featured image by SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees