Hartsfield-Jackson prepares for busy Thanksgiving period

New security lanes to handle overflow traffic are in the works as Atlanta airport could see pre-pandemic demand
Travelers stand in line to go through the security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport during a busy Friday morning, October 28, 2022. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Travelers stand in line to go through the security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport during a busy Friday morning, October 28, 2022. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

More than 2.5 million people are expected to pass through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport over the busy Thanksgiving travel period, and travelers are likely to encounter long lines and wait times.

The busiest days at the world’s busiest airport are expected to be the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the Sunday after the holiday. Passenger traffic is expected to be close to or above the pre-pandemic levels of 2019, according to Robert Spinden, the Transportation Security Administration’s federal security director at Hartsfield-Jackson.

“Arrive early and be prepared,” Spinden advised.

New points of gridlock and congestion caused by construction at the main security checkpoint and airport parking decks are causing major delays for many travelers at the Atlanta airport this season, and passengers should allow more time to get through the airport to avoid missing their flights.

Airport officials are advising travelers to get to the terminal 2.5 to 3 hours before their flights.

“Two of our most public-facing construction projects will impact your flow through the airport,” Hartsfield-Jackson deputy general manager Jan Lennon acknowledged.

One of the biggest pinch points is security screening. Lines for checkpoints stretch through the terminal during busy periods, with wait times of 40 minutes or more.

A key cause of the long lines is a construction project that started at the main security checkpoint in October, closing three security lanes and reducing throughput. The project is expected to take 18 months to complete and will result in the closure of three or four lanes at a time as the airport replaces X-ray machines at the checkpoint.

The long lines for security screening became so severe last month that the airport is working to open an overflow screening area. Plans are to have a new mini-checkpoint ready for overflow traffic by the Thanksgiving period.

During peak periods such as early morning and evening hours, the airport plans to direct some travelers, such as PreCheck members, to a new screening area being developed on the lower level of Terminal North.

TSA screening equipment has been shipped to Hartsfield-Jackson to set up three new lanes at an area next to an employee screening checkpoint on the lower level of Terminal North.

Parking is another major pain point at Hartsfield-Jackson.

A major construction project to shore up the parking decks started this year, blocking off thousands of spaces and causing a shortage of parking next to terminal.

The decks and lots next to the domestic terminal frequently reach capacity during busy periods, forcing motorists to reroute and search for parking elsewhere. Hartsfield-Jackson recommends travelers consider parking at the ATL West deck connected to the terminal via free SkyTrain.

Airlines struggled through staffing issues that caused mass flight cancellations over the summer, but say they are better prepared now for the holidays, after ramping up hiring and training. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has hired about 3,000 employees at Hartsfield-Jackson in the last 12 months, according to Matt Sparks, a senior vice president at the airline.

Labor uncertainty has driven some new concerns, since pilots at Delta voted last month to authorize their union leaders to call a strike in the event contract talks come to a head.

But the Delta pilots union cited progress in negotiations last week. Sparks said talks are continuing and “we don’t anticipate that there would be any operational disruptions” as a result.

Delta forecasts that its busiest day of the Thanksgiving holiday period will be this Friday, Nov. 18, followed by the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The airline expects to handle nearly 6 million passengers Nov. 18-29 across its network, including 1.25 million at Hartsfield-Jackson. That’s up from 1.22 million a year ago and short of the 1.41 million passengers in the same period of 2019.

Auto club AAA forecasts a busy holiday period on the roads as well, with 1.6 million in Georgia expected to travel for Thanksgiving, up 2% from last year and close to 2019 levels. Nearly 90% of those traveling 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving will be going by car.

The busiest days on roads are expected to be Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving week, according to AAA.

The airport congestion also means safety and security officials will be on high alert over the holiday period.

Last Friday, a Frontier Airlines flight was diverted to Atlanta after a passenger was spotted with a box cutter, according to officials. TSA is conducting additional training in response to the incident, according to Spinden.

TSA officials are warning travelers not to pack prohibited items such as guns and other weapons in their carry-ons. Nearly 400 guns have been caught at Hartsfield-Jackson so far this year, and nearly 90% of them were loaded, Spinden said.