Flying? Get ready for Thanksgiving airport crush

WASHINGTON -- If you're flying this Thanksgiving, you might have to spend more time waiting in line to get through security. But take heart — your flight is more likely to be on time, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of federal and private air travel data.

On average, it took just slightly longer in 2007 than in 2006 — an extra 21 seconds — to reach an airport security checkpoint during the busiest time of day over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

But at some airports, the additional wait time was much greater. The peak wait time at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida, for example, increased about seven minutes to about 16½ minutes from Thanksgiving 2006 to Thanksgiving 2007.

Overall, the average time it took to get through security lines at peak flying times rose to 11½ minutes from 2006 to 2007. The average for the whole day — peak and other times — increased to about four minutes over the same period, an increase of only about 10 seconds.

Betsy Rasmusen, a veteran business traveler from Arlington, Va., views Thanksgiving as the one time of the year to stay away from airports.

"That's when everyone with all their family belongings — most of which are not allowed as carry-on — try to game the system, and ultimately fail," she said as she walked into Reagan Washington National Airport recently to catch a flight. "It just backs up the lines, and it's the same every year."

GNS looked at how long it took travelers to make their way through the line to get to an airport metal detector. Among the nation's 50 busiest airports, at the busiest time of the day:

• Twenty-nine airports reported longer wait times in 2007 — an average of about 2½ minutes longer.

• Twenty-one airports reported improvements averaging about three minutes.

• The Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport and the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., posted some of the most improved times.

Mineta cut almost nine minutes off its average peak wait time of more than 19 minutes by rerouting travelers around hurdles created by ongoing construction.

"We worked with TSA (the Transportation Security Administration) and consolidated some checkpoints where it made sense to help smooth out traffic, and then we launched a construction PR campaign to get the passengers informed," airport spokesman David Vossbrink said.

• The longest average security-related wait time in 2007 was at Miami International Airport — almost 22 minutes. That was an increase of about three minutes from 2006.

At Miami International, gateway to Latin America, "Security is a very serious issue," airport spokesman Marc Henderson said. TSA officials, who run security stations at airports, like to keep peak wait times at or below about 12 minutes. On average, they've succeeded.

They say they must balance convenience with security, but security comes first.

"We work very closely with the airlines and the airports to keep things moving as smoothly as possible," TSA spokesman Greg Soule said. "But security is why we're there."

Managers at busy airports with longer-than-average wait times say they face obstacles they can't control. If a storm shuts down flights on a Tuesday, those travelers are back Wednesday, adding to the usual crowd. Mix in holiday travelers who don't know the security system well, and the lines grow quickly.

"They're (leisure travelers) often not up on the fastest ways to get through the security lines," said Greg Meyer, spokesman for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International.

Although screening times have risen, airlines have been making significant improvements in hitting departure and arrival times.

During the first half of this year, about 72% of flights were on schedule, according to data from FlightStats, which tracks flights at virtually all commercial airports nationwide.

That rose to almost 85% in October, marking the fifth-consecutive month of improving numbers.

One reason: Fewer planes are in the air.

Airlines will offer almost 3,000 fewer domestic flights a day during the Thanksgiving season, according to a USA TODAY analysis of flight schedules.

"It's not rocket science," said Joe Brancatelli, an air travel expert in Cold Spring, N.Y. "Fewer flights means less congestion."

Contact John Yaukey at