Following bad weather, government shutdowns, and other disasters, airport horror stories usually start to circulate online about security wait times rivaling Lawrence of Arabia in length.
If you’ve got a flight coming up, it’s hard to know how to prepare.
Should you camp out in the airport parking garage a week in advance? Appease the offended gods with burnt offerings? Give up on leaving the house altogether?
Not just yet. But you might want to start monitoring security wait times at the hubs you'll be using so you can at least get an idea of how long you’ll be standing in line and can plan accordingly.
There are several apps that promise to help you out with that.
They include the Transportation Security Administration's official app, MyTSA, as well as commercial competitors such as App in the Air and MiFlight.
The problem with all of them is that their wait times are crowdsourced, meaning that their accuracy and timeliness depend on updates from users.
Consequently, results vary.
We tested the three apps above for the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International. At the same moment, we got wait times of 30 minutes from MiFlight, 24 minutes from App in the Air, and a range of 11–20 minutes from MyTSA.
What's the truth? Who knows! The apps are only correct and up-to-date if they get correct and up-to-date reports—making truth subjective and shifting, which at least seems in keeping with the current political climate.
Each app has other attributes to recommend it, however, depending on what you need as a traveler.
MyTSA’s “Can I Bring?” feature lets you quickly figure out which items can pass through security checkpoints. The app also stores data on how busy airports have been at specific times in the past, allowing you to use history as a guide in your trip planning. Of course, that doesn’t help much with unforeseen and unforeseeable problems.
MiFlight is for those who like to keep things simple and clean. You get the wait time by airport and by checkpoint area, a pretty picture to represent the destination, and that’s about it.
App in the Air, on the other hand, is for completists. Not only can you track crowdsourced TSA wait times—you can also keep tabs on boarding and landing times, receive real-time updates for delays, check whether your carry-on is the right size, and do a lot more. Aiming for comprehensiveness, the app pulls all your itineraries and mileage points from your email (with your permission) and puts them in one place.
(App in the Air screenshot)
Another option for security wait times: airport websites, many of which now share that information, with frequent updates throughout the day. All three airports in the New York City area—LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy International, and Newark Liberty International—post what are billed as "real-time" calculations of security wait times.
But the accuracy and specificity of the estimates on some airport websites may vary.
The Atlanta airport's website, for example, was predicting waits of "less than 15 minutes" for all checkpoints at the same time as the apps were telling us that number could double.
It's probably wise, then, to use these online tools as guidelines rather than holy scripture.
Until something emerges that allows you to plan an exactly timed airport experience, your best bet remains following the TSA's recommendation of showing up at the airport at least two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international one.
A quick offering to the gods couldn't hurt either.