Hartsfield-Jackson is hectic post-holiday with lengthy security lines

Prolonged security lines confront travelers the Tuesday after Christmas. Holiday travel this week to peak Friday.

As a former travel nurse who lives a few miles from Hartfield-Jackson International, Cheryl Christopherson thought she had mastered the world’s busiest airport.

So, Tuesday morning took her by surprise when she arrived at the Atlanta airport to drop off her 80-year-old mother-in-law for a post-Christmas flight home to New Mexico. Passengers arriving at Hartsfield-Jackson were greeted by prolonged waits to check bags and pass through security with lines at times stretching into the baggage claim areas, as the second half of the Christmas holiday rush got underway.

Christopherson said lines for baggage check and the security checkpoints were a jumbled mess. Despite arriving two-and-a-half hours early for a 9:30 a.m. flight, as airport officials recommended, Christopherson’s mother-in-law missed her takeoff and had to wait hours to catch a stand-by flight to her home in Albuquerque on Tuesday afternoon.

“We don’t live far from the airport, so we go to the airport quite frequently,” said Christopherson, who lives in Hapeville. “It was just insane. I’ve never seen it like that.”

A mix of holiday travelers heading home, road warriors returning to work, winter weather in other parts of the country and staffing issues in Atlanta for the Transportation Security Administration combined to throw a wrench into the morning rush. Hartsfield-Jackson is advising travelers to get to the airport two-and-a-half to three hours before their flights, while Delta is advising its customers to get to the airport three hours early.

A TSA spokesperson said the agency had “an unusual number of people call out sick” Tuesday, which contributed to longer-than-expected security wait times. The airport said it expected about 90,000 passengers to transit through security checkpoints, a heavy passenger count but well shy of an all-time record.

Nearly 300,000 passengers, including travelers connecting in Atlanta, were expected to pass through Hartsfield-Jackson on Tuesday with similar numbers in the coming days. The post-Christmas peak for total passengers is expected Friday.

“Today is one of the busiest travel days of the year due to holiday traffic,” airport spokesman Andy Gobeil said. “We work with our partners, including our airline and law enforcement and security partners to make sure that we are staffed appropriately and are prepared for the high passenger volume. We ask our passengers during this busy time to arrive at the airport at least two and a half to three hours prior to their domestic departure.”

The Wells family, traveling from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Tuesday morning, encouraged travelers to heed the warnings and arrive early. By 10:45 a.m., they were still in the security line near the lobby after some 45 minutes of waiting — and the clock was ticking toward their 11:40 a.m. flight.

“I’m not sure if we’re going to make it,” said mom Jodi Wells. “We travel on Christmas Day a lot and we’ve never seen it like this.”

Mark, Andrew, Jodi and Lucas Wells got to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport later than they planned on Dec. 26 -- and with security lines stretching to the airport lobby, they weren't sure they were going to make their flight to California. Airlines were recommending travelers get to the airport two-and-a-half to three hours early. (Photo by Cassidy Alexander)

Credit: Cassidy Alexander

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Credit: Cassidy Alexander

Kim Whaley, an Atlanta native, was glad she arrived to the airport three hours ahead of her flight back to Philadelphia after seeing the long lines.

“Listen to the airline,” she cautioned other travelers. “If the airline says you need to be three hours early, you need to be three hours early.”

She thought the airport would be busier after the new year, but like the Wells family, has never seen it like this before.

Posted security wait times as of 9 a.m. at Hartsfield-Jackson domestic terminal ranged from 30 minutes for Pre-Check only passengers at the South checkpoint to more than an hour at the main checkpoint. The picture finally improved by mid-day.

Blizzard warnings issued for multiple Midwestern and Central Plains states are also contributing to travel delays, according to TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. She said many canceled Christmas Day flights were rescheduled for Tuesday, compounding already heavy traveler traffic.

Travelers wait in long lines that stretch to the baggage pickup at the domestic terminal of Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta on Tuesday, December 26, 2023, the day after Christmas. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“So for people who were planning to fly back to the center of the country yesterday, many have had their flights cancelled until today, which is an additional factor as to why there could be longer lines today at (Hartsfield-Jackson),” she said.

Atlanta-based Delta was “fully staffed” Tuesday, according to a company spokesperson.

Courtney Rogoff said she waited about an hour to check bags with Delta on Tuesday morning and about two hours in a security line in the domestic terminal before taking a shuttle to the international terminal and passing through security there.

She originally got to the domestic terminal three hours early, missed her flight and got rebooked for one in the afternoon.

”I’ve lived here and flown out of this airport all my life and I’ve never seen it this way,” according to Rogoff. The domestic terminal “was shoulder to shoulder people everywhere.”

One user of the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, was shocked to hear that there was a 90-minute wait to check a bag this morning around 8:30 a.m.

”An hour and a half, to check a bag. An hour and a half, to check a BAG!!” they wrote without naming the airline.

A Delta spokesperson said the wait time to check a bag with the airline peaked at 25 minutes Tuesday morning.

Earlier this month, Hartsfield-Jackson completed a complex and lengthy project to upgrade screening equipment that led to reduced capacity and abnormally long lines at the main domestic checkpoint.

Prolonged waits vexed travelers during construction, particularly during peak travel periods. Security lines of up to an hour, sometimes more have resulted in lines of travelers winding through baggage claim before they can clear screening.

Those who plan to park at the airport should make a reservation in advance, since parking shortages have caused frustrations for some travelers after the closure of the South economy parking lot in October. Other options include MARTA and rideshares such as Uber or Lyft.

The travel disruption for Christopherson’s mother-in-law was not simply an issue of convenience. Christopherson said it was important the flight lands before dark so that her relative would be able to drive home from the Albuquerque airport.

She breathed a sigh of relief when her mother-in-law landed a lucky seat on her 2 p.m. flight.

“Maybe don’t book (a flight) on the day after Christmas if you don’t have to,” Christopherson said.

Staff writer Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this report.