Don't laugh. According to the Transportation Security Administration, lines at security checkpoints aren't a problem any more. They used to track waiting times at individual checkpoints, to try to pinpoint trouble spots. But now they say that 99.5% of passengers experience wait times under 20 minutes—and so not to worry.
My personal experiences haven't been quite so peaceful. I'd say I run into a security traffic jam in about one out of every ten flights. Most recently, I arrived at JFK's Terminal 2 to find a security line crawling because only two checkpoints were in use. Fortunately, I arrived with plenty of time before my flight.
There's no good, current way to check security wait times at all U.S. airports. Of the top 20 U.S. airports, only one, Atlanta's, offers a way to track line lengths on its website (www.atlanta-airport.com/passenger/Waittimes/default.aspx). Denver's airport puts a simple indicator on its home page: www.flydenver.com.
That has really frustrated the folks at TripCase (www.tripcase.com), a spinoff of reservations company Sabre who make a free travel-management program for smart phones. They used to offer a line-tracking service as part of their program, but they're currently searching for an alternative to the TSA's data. They're worth keeping an eye on to see if they find a solution.
One potential solution I've been trying to work on is some way to use Twitter, the micro-blogging service, to look for people "tweeting" about security lines. So far, it's a pretty tough slog. TripCase said they may start integrating a Twitter function soon, which would add crowd-sourced security data to the web.
For now, you can send your smartphone to www.twitter.com and try to search for your airport's three-letter code (like IAH for Houston Bush International.) If anyone's on line complaining, you'll see it, but beware: you're going to get a lot of irrelevant stuff, too. (If you're looking for airport codes, try Expedia's search page at www.expedia.com/daily/airports/airportCodes.asp)
There are two official ways to skip the lines.
If you're traveling in first or business class, or you have elite status with an airline, you can often use a preferred security line. But if you're one of those folks, you probably know this already.
So far 52 airports now have "Black Diamond" lanes (www.tsa.gov/approach/black_diamond.shtm), where expert travelers can whisk themselves through security quickly. According to the TSA, Black Diamond lanes move 21% faster than regular lines, which are clogged with families and with people who don't know to take off their jewelry. For everyone's sake, though, don't go into a Black Diamond lane if you aren't an experienced traveler.
Security Tricks, Airport By Airport
Airport layouts give you some options to dodge long security lines. Sometimes there's a shorter line just around the corner, out of sight. Here are some tips for popular airports that we collected from airport managers, from my own travel experiences and from the airports' websites.
ATL gives you three chances to hit security. There's the main security checkpoint leading to the terminal train, but also north and south security checkpoints leading to Terminal T. But here's the thing: from Terminal T you can catch the train, too, so all three checkpoints are equally useful to you.
DFW airport is entirely connected inside security. That's awesome for many reasons. But it means that any way you get into the airport, you're in the airport. Now, you may have to walk a while or take the airport's internal train system, but you're in. Each terminal has between two and five security checkpoints, and they all lead to connected locations.
DTW has a secret checkpoint (albeit one that many business travelers know about.) There's a Westin hotel that sits on top of the MacNamara terminal, with its own security checkpoint in the lobby. It's only one lane, leading to Concourse A, and it's only open from 7:30am to 7pm. DTW spokesman Scott Wintner doesn't necessarily recommend using this checkpoint, because sometimes it's clogged with business travelers who swear by it -- but, on the other hand, they swear by it.
EWR airport has a few connected concourses. In Terminal B, the security checkpoints for Gates B51-57 and B60-68 merge later on. And all three sets of security checkpoints in Terminal C lead to the same places.
IAD airport just made some great changes, throwing away their old "mobile lounge" buses for a speedy train and installing new security checkpoints, too (more info at www.metwashairports.com/dulles/flight_information_3/mezzanine). But if you're not a frequent Dulles traveler, you might not know that there are checkpoints on both the arrival and departures levels, and the arrival-level ones may be less busy. They're near baggage claims 4 and 12, with an additional "black diamond" expert traveler lane at baggage claim 8.
IAH has five terminals, and four of them -- terminals B through E -- are connected by speedy trains both before and after security. You may have guessed the trick here: if your security checkpoint looks like a total horror, take the pre-security train to another terminal, cross through security, than take the post-security train back to your original terminal. Airport spokeswoman Marlene McClinton hints that the quietest times in her airports are 8-11am and 3-6pm, so you might want to fly at those hours to avoid lines.
LAX is a multiple-terminal horror with, in my experience, some of the longest lines I've ever seen. But there's a secret. On the next floor up above the ticket counters -- accessible by elevator -- there is often another checkpoint which is much less crowded. LAX security may restrict this checkpoint to a certain group, like the elderly or families with small children. But it's there, and worth a try if you're in a desperate hurry.
JFK airport is another multiple-terminal horror. There's no solution to the lines at Terminal 4, where international flights on oddball airlines can lead to very long backups. But if you're traveling Delta, be aware that the lines in Terminal 3 can be shorter than the ones in Terminal 2, yet both terminals are connected.
SEA only has one terminal, but spokesman Perry Cooper had plenty of tips on how to speed your way through it. Mornings are busy with departures at Sea-Tac, so to avoid traffic coming in, drivers should head for the lower, Arrivals level; passengers can then just go one level up to the departure level. Once they're in the terminal, take a look at the checkpoints at the south end, away from the Alaska Airlines check-in counter. Because Alaska is Sea-Tac's busiest airline, there's usually more of a crowd at the checkpoint near their ticketing counter.
SFO's terminal 3, gates 60-90, has four different security checkpoints that all lead to the same locations, spaced evenly along the length of Terminal 3. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.
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