Get to the airport three hours early? Here’s why

Monday lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport stretched a long way.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Monday lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport stretched a long way.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is recommending travelers get to the airport up to three hours before their departure time.

The reaction from some people: Seriously? Three hours?!?

In recent years, getting to the Atlanta airport an hour and a half early was plenty, and sometimes just an hour or less was enough time.

Times have changed.

Security lines now stretch through the terminal atrium on a regular basis, sometimes extending into baggage claim. Wait times at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at peak times can be an hour long, and sometimes a bit longer. The peak wait time recorded by TSA on the morning of May 9 was 62 minutes.

That’s what changes the equation. In the past several months, plenty of angst-filled travelers have gotten into a long, long security line wondering if they will ever make their flight — and indeed, some don’t make it in time.

The unusually long security wait times call for a change in thinking about how much time you should allow when heading to the airport. And with continued growth in passenger counts, limited TSA staffing and growing security concerns, there’s no clear sign that the long lines will be ending anytime soon.

I didn’t come up with the three-hour rule. In fact, the recommendation from airport and TSA officials varies from two to two-and-a-half to three hours.

Different personality types have different approaches to how much time is enough, or how early is too early. Full disclosure: I like getting to the airport early. But I’ve also never missed a flight.

No matter who you are, here’s why it’s a good idea to rethink your airport game and get to the terminal earlier for your next trip.

To be sure, every traveler is different and different trips have different needs. The three hour recommendation is a broad-based estimate that can take into account a variety of tasks in your path through the airport. If you know you won’t be parking at the airport or checking a bag, for example, by all means adjust as necessary. But a number of tasks apply to many travelers.

Let’s start from the beginning. You’ve barreled down the highway, allowed enough time to get through Atlanta traffic and are pulling in close to the world’s busiest airport.

  1. If you're parking at a remote shuttle lot, you might want to allow up to 20 minutes to park, wait for the shuttle and make the trip to the terminal. Keep in mind that you might be delayed a few minutes along the way as the shuttle picks up other passengers in the parking lot.
  2. Those who are checking bags could end up in a long line at the ticket counter. Southwest Airlines, for example, allows two free checked bags and customers don't shy away from taking the airline up on that offer. There may also be a wait at curbside check-in. It's a good idea to allow up to 20 minutes to check bags.
  3. It's unfortunately not so unusual anymore to have a security wait time approaching the one-hour range. So let's allow 65 minutes to get to the security checkpoint, get through the line and go through screening.
  4. The people-mover train ride is up to 12 minutes long, according to the airport. Of course, you could be going to Concourse T with a much shorter ride, but that might be difficult to predict in advance.
  5. You can allow up to 10 minutes to go up the escalators and walk to your gate. It might be shorter, but some concourses are extremely crowded during peak times and difficult to navigate.
  6. Airlines typically start the boarding process 30 minutes before departure time, and sometimes it's up to 45 minutes in advance. If you want to get room in the overhead bin, it's a good idea to be ready to board when your boarding group is up.

So there you go. That’s a total of 172 minutes, or two hours and 52 minutes. That allows eight minutes to buy a bottle of water or fill your own bottle, buy a sandwich to eat on board or pick up something else up at a concession.

There’s a decent chance you won’t run into all of the maximum times for each step of the way. But if you do, you should still be on time for your flight.

And if everything goes right, you’ll get to your gate early.

That's a perfect opportunity to check your email, texts or social media of your choice, read a book or magazine, check out the latest news, stroll through some airport shops, sit down at a bar or restaurant, or just people-watch. And revel in the fact that you knew you would make your flight on time — in spite of ridiculously long security lines.