Multiple security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport ran across the atrium, then snaked through baggage claim in both domestic terminals on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, the day after Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl.
Photo: Phil Skinner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Phil Skinner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Record day at Hartsfield-Jackson after Super Bowl yields 2-hour waits

On a record day when nearly 102,000 passengers were screened at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, some waited in line for two hours Monday, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Airport officials had advised that passengers flying out the day after the Super Bowl get in line for TSA screening 2 hours before departure as part of a 5-4-3-2-1 rule displayed around the airport.

“That was communicated steadily,” said Mary Leftridge Byrd, TSA federal security director.

But when the lines were longest, getting in line at security two hours early may not have been enough time to make a flight.

In addition to clearing security, passengers would also need time to get to their concourse and gate, which could involve a ride on the Plane Train.

The airport had advised passengers to get to their departure gate an hour before takeoff — meaning TSA screening on Monday would need to have taken an hour or less to get through, instead of two hours. Boarding typically starts half an hour or more before departure.

Fortunately, many passengers allowed more time than the airport advised and got into line for security more than two hours before their flights.

The total of 101,999 passengers flooding TSA checkpoints on Mass Exodus Monday surpassed the previous record of 93,082 set on the Friday before Memorial Day 2018, according to TSA. That’s more than enough people to fill Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It was obviously very, very busy,” Byrd said. “There is no question that we had passengers in the hallways” and across the airport. “Given the challenge that we faced … passengers understood what it was they were facing, we were facing.”

TSA had all of its lanes open starting at 3 a.m. Monday. But even at maximum capacity, the 27 security lanes in the domestic terminal’s three security checkpoints were not enough to screen passengers as quickly as they arrived at the airport.

A sign near the airport MARTA station displaying Hartsfield-Jackson’s 5-4-3-2-1 rule.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

While airport officials said Monday that wait times were as long as an hour and a half, TSA said Tuesday that the maximum wait time on Monday was 120 minutes.

The new record set for passengers screened in a day is nearly 9.6 percent higher than the old record, and it showed: Lines on Monday morning stretched through the domestic terminal atrium, around baggage claim carousels and into airline check-in areas.

Lead TSA officer Rufus Rivers Jr., after a press conference at the airport Tuesday, called Monday “horrendous” and said: “For the most part, yesterday was really a traumatic experience” for people who don’t fly through Hartsfield-Jackson regularly.

But he said, “We were pretty well organized. We got a lot of passengers through.”

The terminal was flooded with passengers at around 8 a.m. and lines extended around the terminal through the morning.

Hartsfield-Jackson assistant general manager of planning Tom Nissalke said the airport had “established a plan to essentially use every available square foot and fill it with queuing.”

Before the big rush began after 5 a.m. and after the crowds cleared Monday afternoon, passengers had shorter wait times. TSA said the majority of passengers waited 30 minutes or less.

Getting in line two hours before departure as officials recommended “may have been sufficient” for passengers going through security during a less-busy period, Byrd said.

On Mass Exodus Monday, TSA screened:

» 101,999 total passengers

» 46,453 PreCheck passengers

» 53,781 checked bags

Source: TSA, Hartsfield-Jackson

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.