Though 708 million passengers—nearly 41 million more than in 2014—were screened at U.S. airports in 2015, only two percent of travelers had to wait more than 20 minutes to get through airport security, says the TSA in its 2015 Year in Review.
So why is it that the checkpoint you’re in is always the one with the interminable line?
TSA’s statistics are based on national averages, and they’re skewed somewhat by the fact that expedited screening lanes processed 44 percent of fliers in 2015. More than two million fliers have signed up for TSA PreCheck, those fast-pass lanes for travelers who pass a background check and pay a membership fee ($85 for five years). Others get line-cutting privileges via their airline.
But more than half of all travelers don’t get any special treatment and when they hit a backed-up checkpoint, their wait can easily exceed 30 minutes. (The wait on what should have been a slow Wednesday morning at Newark Airport in mid-January took more than 40 minutes. I know: I clocked it as a family member was going through security at Terminal C.)
Why the security sluggishness? One reason is that the TSA is tightening the reins in the wake of terror attacks both here and abroad; several airlines, including United, do warn travelers to allow extra time "as a result of heightened security measures at airports within the U.S."
The big question for consumers, though, is what’s going on at my local airport? J.D. Power, the consumer research firm, has taken a look at this side of travel in its 2015 North American Airport survey. While travelers’ perception of getting through security seems to have improved overall, with a 66 percent increase in its satisfaction score since the last survey in 2010, those without special privileges, understandably, have a lower opinion of how the TSA is doing.
Remember that individual airports may not have much direct control over security, which is, after all, a federal function. But airports see the benefits when their checkpoints operate more efficiently—in fact, the large airports that scored high on the efficiency of the checkpoint tended to do well overall in the survey. If travelers get through the lines quickly, they can use that extra time to enjoy the amenities on the other side. "Time is money and airports with the higher scores tend to get the highest average spend," says Rick Garlick, Ph.D., head of J.D. Power’s global travel and hospitality practice. Below are the average wait times at large and medium-sized U.S. airports, as reported by travelers surveyed by J.D. Power. Does this ring true to what you experience?
Best Wait Times at Large U.S. Airports
- Tampa – 11.4 minutes
- Fort Lauderdale – 12.3 minutes
- San Diego – 12.5 minutes
- Detroit – 12.6 minutes
- Portland –12.8 minutes
Mid-sized airports tend to do even better, as their size makes for more manageable crowds: The best was Palm Beach airport, clocking in at just under ten minutes.
Worst Wait Times at Large U.S. Airports
- JFK – 16.8 minutes
- Newark – 16.5 minutes
- LAX –16 minutes
- Philadelphia – 15.6 minutes
- Seattle/Tacoma – 15.6 minutes (tie)
- Chicago O'Hare –15.6 minutes (tie)
- LaGuardia – 15.5 minutes
- Washington Dulles – 15.5 minutes
But averages don’t tell the whole story. The TSA doesn’t post average wait times by airport—although it used to years ago—and instead maintains a crowd-sourced app that gives fliers the opportunity to post how long it took them to get through. Not surprisingly, most travelers are more interested in making their flight than taking the time to weigh in—a recent check of wait-times at several major airports showed that days and even weeks can elapse between postings. That renders this service effectively useless for planning purposes, but still, the results are sobering: In half of the posted times in the past two weeks, the average wait exceeded 30 minutes at Newark; LaGuardia did a little better, with about a third waiting more than a half hour, another third from ten to 30 minutes, and the rest reporting no wait.
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