“The moral of the story is flying is really miserable right now,” said Roswell resident Scott Jeffries, who nearly missed a flight with his son last month after waiting in security lines for more than an hour. “People in charge should answer for it.”
Things are about to get even worse starting Monday with the closure of the popular South economy lot, which will take some 3,000 parking spaces out of commission near the domestic terminal. Construction that’s upended the domestic security checkpoints, meanwhile, is expected to stretch into mid-January, raising questions about Hartsfield-Jackson and TSA’s readiness for the holiday crush as Thanksgiving looms.
Parking at the Atlanta airport has been a nightmare at peak periods going back to April of last year when Hartsfield-Jackson kicked off the initial phases of parking deck construction projects that are expected to last to 2034. The first phases have closed off thousands of spaces. But the biggest interruptions are still to come as the airport shores up aging decks and eventually replaces the massive parking structures with new ones at the North and South terminal entrances.
Denise Rueckert remembers the panic she felt as she and her husband frantically drove for hours around the Atlanta airport trying to find a spot to park, rushing from one airport lot to another only to find they were full.
Rueckert said they left for the airport five hours early to set off for her first post-retirement vacation. But the Roswell couple still ended up missing their flight and their entire nine-day trip to the Southwest last October, including a family wedding — all because they couldn’t find a parking spot at the airport.
When she told family members what happened, “People couldn’t understand: How can an airport not have parking? I’m like, ‘I don’t know either, but they didn’t,’” she said.
Since that missed trip a year ago, Rueckert has used MARTA to get to the airport.
If she has to drive there again: “My lesson out of all of this — I will never go to the airport again without having reserved parking at the airport,” she said.
Keeping pace with growth
Monday’s South economy parking lot closure is part of the airport’s never-ending efforts to expand and keep pace with the growth of travel.
But it often feels like the airport is struggling to keep up, leaving travelers stuck in bottlenecks. A strong rebound of travel last year from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic caught many in the air travel industry off-guard and short-staffed. But the problems persist, with little sign of relief to come.
As many as 330,000 passengers a day pass through Hartsfield-Jackson’s terminals and concourses. That’s more than four times the capacity of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The airport is adding parking, building more gates and opening new restaurants and shops across the terminals and concourses. But every one of those projects takes months or years to complete, and there will be closures and construction for years to come.
Airport officials are already recommending on busy days that travelers get to the terminal three hours before their flights.
Columbus Day weekend, fall break for many local schools but not a huge travel period historically, overwhelmed the airport checkpoints. At times, passengers said it took nearly two hours to clear security.
Airport officials plan to take lessons from Columbus Day and apply them to the upcoming holidays, according to a spokesman.
Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi, who chairs the council transportation committee that oversees the city-run airport, acknowledged the problems.
“It feels like there’s a confluence of challenges — parking, security lines, shuttle waits — that are making the experience less than it should be,” Farokhi said. “I share the concern about the decrease in efficiency at the airport.”
Atlanta is not alone in undertaking huge capital projects to enhance capacity. Los Angeles International and New York’s LaGuardia Airport have undergone blockbuster renovations in recent years that were hell on passengers. Growing airports are constantly undergoing maintenance and improvements, and airports have to keep operating while they’re under construction.
While other large cities have multiple airports, Hartsfield-Jackson is the only commercial airport in Atlanta and hosts the world’s largest connecting hub with Delta Air Lines as its dominant carrier. That means it funnels as many as 100,000 travelers a day through security checkpoints in two terminals.
The delays at Hartsfield-Jackson are also affecting hometown carrier Delta, which operates its largest hub in Atlanta.
“We’re doing everything we can, but it is the busiest airport in the world,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian. “We’re letting customers know, particularly during the busiest times of travel, to leave a little extra time for travel.”
But there is no questioning the fact that the major construction projects at the Atlanta airport are reducing capacity just as passenger traffic ramps up to what could be record levels.
Hartsfield-Jackson plans to build a new parking deck on the site of the South economy lot, but it will take three years to complete. Airport officials are warning travelers that the experience is “not going to be very nice,” as Hartsfield-Jackson Chief Commercial Officer Jai Ferrell put it.
“We’re looking forward to providing new parking capacity for customers, but we recognize there may be challenges during the construction process,” according to Ferrell. The airport built two new locations, the ATL West parking deck and ATL Select lot, to add capacity before starting the years-long parking overhaul.
Many travelers are used to parking at the airport. But some who have started traveling again post-pandemic may need to change their routines due to parking shortages, turning to parking with reservations, MARTA or ride-sharing instead.
Rueckert and her husband had planned to use the airport’s daily parking for their flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a trip to see the famous hot air balloon festival, then to Santa Fe and Taos, and finally to her niece’s wedding.
But after learning the parking deck was full, they drove from lot to lot on Camp Creek Parkway, only to find they were closed to those without advance parking reservations. “There were almost wrecks directly happening out there, because people were frantic, trying to get a parking space and get to their flight,” Rueckert said.
In a last ditch effort, the Rueckerts drove to the international terminal and found the park-ride deck there was also full.
“My niece was kind of upset with me, and I was upset, the fact that I didn’t make it to her wedding,” Rueckert said. “You just don’t miss family events like that.”
City Councilmembers and some other officials don’t directly experience the parking crunch like Rueckert did, because they get special access to South reserve parking in the deck at Hartsfield-Jackson as a perk of their positions.
But some have still noticed the growing congestion.
Farokhi noted that the airport’s efficiency had “long been a point of pride at the airport,” and acknowledged that the council needs “to have some direct conversations” with airport officials.
Airport officials say they will add staff to address concerns, and are recommending that when the South economy lot closes, motorists consider other airport park-ride options including the ATL West deck and ATL Select lot.
But those, too, can fill up during busy periods.
Other travelers have missed flights while waiting in security lines.
Tam Garlauskas said she and her husband earlier this month waited for more than an hour at the main checkpoint and then the North checkpoint, “You’re literally being herded,” Garlauskas said. They missed their flight, then rented a car and drove 11 hours back home to McLean, Virginia.
Travelers also have complained about lines being significantly longer than the posted security wait times.
Jeff Walker, who lives in Atlanta, said he and his wife waited in line at the main checkpoint earlier this month for an hour and 40 minutes while the airport’s website cited wait times of 35 minutes. “It was just a mess,” he said.
According to TSA, peak times at the security checkpoints are 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. into the evening.
Because of heavy volumes, “there will be periods during the day when every security checkpoint lane is open and staffed, but the number of passengers who need to be screened exceeds the capacity of the security checkpoints,” according to Robert Spinden, TSA’s federal security director in Atlanta. He added that the agency will use overtime to extend shifts of TSA officers.
The U.S. Travel Association, an industry group, pointed fingers at government shortfalls in staffing and infrastructure investment for travel hassles across the country.
“The federal government is failing travelers,” said U.S. Travel President Geoff Freeman. “Travelers are frustrated ... (and) avoiding trips due specifically to air travel hassles.”
The airport added the lower-North security checkpoint to boost capacity during construction in the domestic screening areas, but even that was not enough to handle the volume of traffic now coming through Hartsfield-Jackson.
Another factor affecting throughput is that TSA puts workers through training on new equipment in the fall, which normally is a slower period after the summer rush.
“It’s really not slowed much,” Spinden said. Traffic volumes neared record levels with more than 100,000 travelers on the Friday before Columbus Day, leading to wait times more than an hour long.
Spinden said the agency is currently above its full staffing level, but the new lower North checkpoint isn’t always at capacity. “We’re trying to divert more and more traffic down there,” he said.
Jeffries, the traveler who nearly missed his flight last month, has a TSA PreCheck membership and normally goes through the South checkpoint for expedited screening. But his son did not, so they had to shift over to the line for standard screening at the main security checkpoint and he said the delay shocked him. Jeffries said he was frustrated that security lanes were not being fully used when he went through the checkpoint.
“They have no incentive to do a good job, because we have no choice,” Jeffries said. “Those of us in Atlanta who want to leave, we have to go through that airport.”