With unprecedented crowds at the world’s busiest airport, security lines Monday stretched through the domestic terminal atrium, snaked down hallways, around baggage claim carousels and extended alongside Delta ticket counters.
Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden said wait times were about 1.5 hours long Monday morning. Long lines of up to 45 minutes going through the atrium and into baggage claim continued into the afternoon.
By 8:20 a.m, a Delta official was telling some travelers that they could take a shuttle to the international terminal for shorter lines.
The influx of Super Bowl fans exacerbated already busy Monday traffic, and even seasoned business travelers accustomed to peak Monday crowds were shocked to see the lines.
“I’ve never seen it like this -- ever,” said business traveler Gudni Vilmundarson. “I’m just shocked and surprised.”
David Arpin, a traveler from Rhode Island, got in a PreCheck line where he was told it would be a 30 minute wait.
“It’s a cluster,” Arpin said, adding that it’s a good thing he arrived three hours early. Some travelers were confused about which line to get into.
“We’ve established a plan to essentially use every available square foot and fill it with queuing,” said Hartsfield-Jackson assistant general manager of planning Tom Nissalke. Although passengers were in some of the longest lines ever seen at the Atlanta airport, “everybody continues to move.”
Many passengers had anticipated long lines, but some were surprised and upset.
“This is outrageous. It’s almost like they didn’t plan for it,” said Lisa Gartland, a traveler returning to the Bahamas after going to the Super Bowl. “It’s ridiculous.”
A record of nearly 100,000 passengers are expected to pass through security checkpoints at the world’s busiest airport on Monday, with the biggest crowds from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.
There are typically 60,000 to 65,000 passengers going through checkpoints on a regular Monday, according to Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden.
Airline, airline and Transportation Security Administration officials are warning passengers to get to the airport early and be prepared for crowds, long lines and wait times if they’re flying out Monday.
Luke Lavash, headed back to Boston, had been in line for more than one hour. He still had a ways to go. Lavash was told the wait would be 45 minutes once he got in line.
Lavash was patient because he was warned the wait could be 3 hours and because his Patriots won.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a long wait. If we had lost, it wouldn’t be as much fun.”
The lines appeared to peak around 8 a.m. At 7:45, the wait at the main check in area was 30-45 minutes. Twenty minutes later, it was one hour plus.
“Oh my God!,” one employee said to two coworkers. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Airport workers created two lines at Terminal North. They directed travelers like traffic cops.
Many travelers were confused because there wasn’t much signage in some areas.
Most were patient.
“It’s Monday after the Super Bowl, so we expected this would be this crazy,” said Alexis Armand, who was returning to Orlando.
Some passengers missed flights after waiting in line for an hour and a half, while others were concerned about whether they’d have enough time.
“I knew it was going to be more crowded than usual, which is why I gave myself a two-hour buffer, but it looks like that’s going to be used up in the line,” said traveler Brittany Donley, leaving from Atlanta on a business trip. “Hopefully I’ll make it.”
One of the biggest chokepoints may be PreCheck lines, because of the nearly 100,000 about 40,000 are PreCheck passengers, according to TSA spokesman Mark Howell.
The PreCheck line went winding around baggage claim, as did the regular security line.
“There will be some times when the PreCheck lines will be longer than expected,” Howell said. Early Monday morning, PreCheck lines stretched down the hallway on the south side of the terminal and were up to half an hour long.
During some periods of the morning, members of trusted traveler program Clear were not able to get in the Clear line because the lines were full.
Some travelers began arriving shortly after the game ended to take late night flights home, while others headed to the airport to spend the night before flying out Monday morning.
Traffic picked up after 3 a.m. at the airport.
“Opening at 3 a.m. gave us a head start,” Selden said. “This is our game day for Hartsfield-Jackson. This is the last impression all travelers will have,” and airport officials hope it will be a good one.
The airport has removed chairs from the domestic terminal atrium in anticipation of the record crowds arriving.
Security checkpoint lines are expected to extend through the terminal, and removing the chairs “gives us more capacity to queue up people here,” said Selden. By reducing the number of seats to sit in, it’s also a way “to get people to go through” security, he said.
Selden said the airport has all security checkpoints open Sunday night into Monday, and every lane will be open starting at 3 a.m. through the rest of the day.
A security checkpoint at the international terminal that’s normally used to process international passengers connecting in Atlanta will have some lanes available to process departing passengers, adding a fifth security checkpoint to handle the post-Super Bowl volume.
Late Sunday night, Selden said it was a good to see travelers arriving at the airport as early as an hour and a half after the game ended.
“This is a great sign that people are coming this quickly,” Selden said. “If we can absorb a couple thousand [passengers] between now and 2, 3 in the morning, that would be really good because we expect a lot of people here at 2 or 3 a.m.”
Airport officials hoped to process passengers through security overnight to reduce the flood of Super Bowl crowds when the airport also has a huge rush of Monday morning business travelers.
Delta handed out blankets, pillows and amenity kits to passengers staying overnight, and Sky Clubs on Concourses T, B and F are open overnight Sunday night into Monday.
But there weren’t as many passengers arriving to spend the night as expected, and employees on hand to handle overnight customers were left waiting as few passengers came through.
“We were anticipating a lot of customers coming early,” said Delta general manager of airport customer service Mark O’Leary. “We expect it to pick up really in the 4 to 5 a.m. range.”
Delta is also handling two charter flights for Patriots friends and family early Monday morning.
Overnight at the airport, some passengers stopped at the first concourse past security, Concourse T, to wait until they found out which gate their flight will depart from Monday.
John Bergquist, a Boston police officer who flew to Atlanta to go to the game with his son, went to the airport right after the game and said taking MARTA to and from the game was convenient and quick.
He arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson just before midnight for a 6 a.m. flight. “I arranged it just so if the game went into overtime, we still had time to get to the airport,” Bergquist said. “I didn’t realize how convenient the transit system is... I like the setup here very much.”
With his son sleeping across seats in a gate area on Concourse T, Bergquist said he planned to stay up to keep an eye on their belongings.
At close to 4 a.m., he said he hadn’t seen any crowds at the airport. “I expected to see more people,” said Bergquist, a Patriots fan who noted that most of the fans he saw were fellow Pats fans. “I think if we had lost there’d be a lot of people getting out of town faster, but that’s not the case.”
Paula Hamann from Worcester, Ma. arrived at the airport after the game for a 6 a.m. flight.
“I’m chilling until I find out where [the flight] leaves from,” Hamann said. Hamann flew in Sunday morning to go to the game with a quick turnaround.
Settled in on Concourse T in a gate area in the early morning hours, she said “the flight boards in three-and-a-half hours so I’m just going to sit and read my book.”
Traveler Nate Buenaventura, a Patriots fan from Rhode Island who now lives in San Francisco, arrived at the airport before midnight for a 12:45 a.m. flight back home.
He flew in Sunday morning wearing only a clear fanny pack to enter the game and had hoped to get a ticket, but ended up watching the game at a bar near the stadium.
He said the MARTA ride to the airport was “pretty fun” with mostly other Patriots fans.
Owen Grady, a student at the University of Richmond who was in Atlanta to go to the game with his family, said he took Uber to the airport and it was “surprisingly not bad,” costing about $40.
He headed to the airport after the game and had dinner at one of the airport restaurants open late, but said he didn’t know if he would be going to sleep. “I feel like if I fell asleep... I don’t want to worry about something getting stolen at the airport.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.