Hartsfield-Jackson holiday traffic to reach its peak Friday

Thursday and Saturday to also bring heavy crowds to world’s busiest airport

.About 84,000 passengers will pass through Atlanta airport security checkpoints Thursday. And that number will climb on Friday to nearly 90,000.

Tens of thousands of travelers will stream into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for holiday trips in the coming days, with this Friday expected to bring some of the biggest crowds.

Officials at Delta Air Lines, the Atlanta airport and the Transportation Security Administration have been preparing for weeks for the holiday rush — reopening upgraded security lanes, bringing on seasonal workers and increasing overtime staffing.

But that still hasn’t kept lines from stretching through the terminal during peak periods at the world’s busiest airport.

To make your travels as smooth as possible, arrive early, reserve parking in advance or take transit or use taxis or ride-sharing services. Delta is advising travelers to get to the airport at least three hours before their flight.

Atlanta-based Delta expects to handle more than 118,000 customers this Friday at Hartsfield-Jackson, the busiest day in the lead up to Christmas. This Thursday and Saturday will also be busy.

During such peak periods, travelers must navigate long security lines, as well as changes at the airport that require more time to navigate.

A shortage of airport parking has caused some travelers to circle the airport looking for other spots to park while trying to catch their flights. The closure of the airport’s South economy lot in October caused the loss of thousands of spots. Planned construction on Concourse D has also caused some gate closures as the airport prepares for a massive project to expand that concourse.

The airline is encouraging travelers “to arrive early to navigate recent airport changes being made to improve the overall travel experience,” said Delta spokesman Anthony Black.

Delta has about 300 seasonal workers at its Atlanta hub who can help travelers preparing to go through screening at security checkpoints, help those checking in bags, passengers in wheelchairs, and unaccompanied minors.

“We’re really well prepared,” said Joe Miller, vice president of Delta’s Atlanta hub, at the start of the holiday rush.

TSA is increasing staffing with more overtime, according to TSA spokesman Mark Howell.

That’s because TSA saw an increase in workers calling in sick last weekend. In spite of the reopening of several screening lanes at the main security checkpoint after the completion of a project to upgrade baggage screening equipment, the reduced staffing drove wait times of up to 45 minutes at the domestic terminal and an hour at the international terminal.

Traffic for the year-end holiday period is spread out over many days. As a result, the peak crowds aren’t as heavy as compressed travel periods like Thanksgiving weekend and the Fourth of July.

But, “It’s going to be busy throughout,” Howell said. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be some of the least crowded days at the airport, since many travelers will already be at their destinations for the holiday.

Then, traffic ramps up again for Dec. 26-29 as people return home from holiday trips.

To keep flights running more smoothly, the Federal Aviation Administration has opened military airspace for north-south traffic on the East Coast and is working to limit commercial space launches during the peak travel season, according to FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker.

The FAA expects to see a peak of nearly 49,000 flights operated around the country Thursday. That falls to fewer than 23,500 flights expected on Christmas Day.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned during a briefing Tuesday that bad weather around the country could disrupt travel around Christmas and New Year’s.

“FAA is working closely with airlines to prepare for that possibility,” Buttigieg said. “If you are concerned about weather affecting your travel plans please remember to check directly with your airline for the most up-to-date information about your flight.”

Security lines back up as holiday travelers descend on Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, December 20, 2023. (Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren

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Credit: Ben Hendren

A brutal winter storm last Christmas triggered a meltdown for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines that left thousands of travelers stranded.

The U.S. Department of Transportation conducted an investigation of Southwest’s handling of the breakdown and this week fined Southwest $35 million as part of a record $140 million settlement. Southwest is the second-largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Winter weather will be “a challenge in the next few weeks,” Buttigieg noted. He also cited the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland as a potential disruption, for international flights.

“Is your airline and is the system as a whole resilient enough that it can absorb that, reorient and get back on its feet? That’s what we’re looking for,” Buttigieg said. “It has shown significant signs of improvement in 2023. Obviously another test of that will be the results we get through Christmas and New Year’s coming up right now.”

MORE DETAILS

Passengers dash to the airport for holiday travel

Friday will be a peak day for passenger traffic at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be the slowest days of the holiday period:

Dec. 22, 327,000

Dec. 23, 301,000

Dec. 24, 229,000

Dec. 25, 229,000

Dec. 26, 298,000

Dec. 27, 299,000

Dec. 28, 304,000

Dec. 29, 313,000

Dec. 30, 289,000

Dec. 31, 245,000

Jan. 1, 236,000

Jan. 2, 264,000

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

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