Hartsfield-Jackson expects 2 million passengers in Memorial Day period

Airport officials recommend travelers get to the terminal early
People are seen at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport domestic terminal in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.  (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

People are seen at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport domestic terminal in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is preparing for crowds over Memorial Day weekend rivaling pre-pandemic levels, with roughly 2 million passengers expected to pass through its concourses during the holiday period from May 26 to June 1.

Passenger counts are expected to be up by about a third compared to Memorial Day last year, with traffic near 2019 levels.

Travel has rebounded in some areas to record levels for leisure trips. Mask requirements for air travel have been lifted — even as new variants of COVID-19 continue to spread throughout the country. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention still recommends passengers wear face masks in indoor areas and aboard planes while traveling.

Heavy passenger traffic has already been responsible for security wait times of 30 to 45 minutes at Hartsfield-Jackson with lines stretching through the terminal at peak periods.

Airport officials now recommend travelers get to the terminal at least two-and-a-half hours before their flights, and allow extra time for parking amid the start of a multi-year project to upgrade airport decks.

Busy periods

The Transportation Security Administration said it expects passenger volumes throughout the summer “will match and may occasionally exceed those of 2019 for the first time since the pandemic began.”

That “may require more patience and planning than was necessary before the pandemic,” according to TSA, which is using technology at checkpoints to speed passenger processing, including credential authentication with facial recognition at the South checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson.

The busiest days of the holiday period are expected to be Thursday and Friday, when more than 80,000 passengers are expected to pass through security checkpoints each day.

Officials are warning travelers to check their bags for items prohibited at airport security checkpoints, including guns, before heading to the airport. There’s some indication the message is resonating.

TSA reports the number of guns caught at Hartsfield-Jackson security checkpoints so far in 2022 has declined to 155 compared to last year’s 158, the first drop in years.

Planes are also expected to be more crowded.

Airlines have slashed flight schedules this summer in the face of staffing challenges to try to avoid a rash of last-minute cancellations seen earlier this year. But the moves have also reduced capacity available to meet travel demand.

The squeeze, exacerbated by high fuel costs, is also driving up air fares. Ticket prices were up 27% compared with 2019 levels by April, according to Adobe Analytics data. Air fares have been rising for the past three months.

In spite of the high cost to fly, demand for summer travel nationally is still above pre-pandemic levels, according to Adobe.

Other pinch points at the airport could cause frustrations for travelers.

Thousands of parking spaces in the South parking deck have been closed for construction for the early stages of a multi-year airport project to reinforce and eventually replace Hartsfield-Jackson’s aging domestic terminal parking decks.

That significantly reduces parking available next to the terminal.

As a result, daily parking in the airport’s parking decks often reaches capacity during busy periods, forcing motorists to reroute and look for another place to park. The airport recommends travelers instead consider parking at the remote ATL West deck, which is connected to the terminal via free SkyTrain.

What’s more, airport concessionaires continue to struggle with staffing issues, causing reduced hours and ongoing closures of some locations.

That means lines for food and beverages at the remaining airport eateries can be long.

CDC guidance for travel

Although the CDC no longer requires masks on planes or in airports, it continues to recommend people wear masks indoors and aboard planes while traveling.

The CDC also updated its guidance this week for domestic travelers, saying all who are traveling within the United States should consider getting tested within three days before a trip.

If a trip involves “situations with greater risk of exposure such as being in crowded places while not wearing a well-fitting mask,” the CDC also recommends getting tested after the trip.