Navigating Hartsfield-Jackson: What to expect for Thanksgiving travel

Travelers should be aware of the potential for frustrations when parking at the Atlanta airport and at security checkpoints
October 9, 2023 Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: With travelers stuck waiting in severely long lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International during busy periods over the holiday weekend, airport officials warned travelers departing Monday, Oct. 9, 2023 (shown here) to get to the airport three hours before their flights. The Atlanta airport has had security lines well over an hour long over the Columbus Day holiday weekend. During periods on Monday morning, security lines extended into the domestic terminal atrium but moved quickly. Along with vacationers returning from weekend trips, Monday is typically a peak day for air travel. The Transportation Security Administration said expected heavy volumes including more than 100,000 people through its checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson last Friday, about 70,000 on Saturday and 82,000 on Sunday caused the long wait times over the weekend. On Monday, the latest figures showed more than 80,000 passengers were expected through Atlanta airport checkpoints. Traffic will be lighter Tuesday. “This is revenge travel,” said Steve Mayers, senior director of marketing and customer experience at Hartsfield-Jackson. “I think most people just want to travel after COVID. ... Folks are tired of being locked up for three years, and now they’re using the opportunity to go and explore.” Mayers said busy periods at the airport include the morning rush from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and the evening rush from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Increased traffic has led to lines at the South checkpoint for members of TSA’s PreCheck trusted traveler program. The airport is also in the midst of a massive parking construction project that has reduced parking capacity. Construction closures have caused a parking shortage next to the terminal, and will result in the closure of the South economy lot starting Oct. 23 to build a new parking deck on the site. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
October 9, 2023 Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: With travelers stuck waiting in severely long lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International during busy periods over the holiday weekend, airport officials warned travelers departing Monday, Oct. 9, 2023 (shown here) to get to the airport three hours before their flights. The Atlanta airport has had security lines well over an hour long over the Columbus Day holiday weekend. During periods on Monday morning, security lines extended into the domestic terminal atrium but moved quickly. Along with vacationers returning from weekend trips, Monday is typically a peak day for air travel. The Transportation Security Administration said expected heavy volumes including more than 100,000 people through its checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson last Friday, about 70,000 on Saturday and 82,000 on Sunday caused the long wait times over the weekend. On Monday, the latest figures showed more than 80,000 passengers were expected through Atlanta airport checkpoints. Traffic will be lighter Tuesday. “This is revenge travel,” said Steve Mayers, senior director of marketing and customer experience at Hartsfield-Jackson. “I think most people just want to travel after COVID. ... Folks are tired of being locked up for three years, and now they’re using the opportunity to go and explore.” Mayers said busy periods at the airport include the morning rush from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. and the evening rush from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Increased traffic has led to lines at the South checkpoint for members of TSA’s PreCheck trusted traveler program. The airport is also in the midst of a massive parking construction project that has reduced parking capacity. Construction closures have caused a parking shortage next to the terminal, and will result in the closure of the South economy lot starting Oct. 23 to build a new parking deck on the site. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

Traveling through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport during the holidays can be an ordeal, calling for deft planning with a keen eye on potential obstacles.

Parking shortages and security lines can be more than an hour long during busy periods, causing bottlenecks as passenger numbers rise. Some travelers held up by delays have missed their flights.

Hundreds of thousands of passengers will have to navigate through those and other challenges as the busy travel season kicks off with the Thanksgiving rush.

Here’s a guide on the latest updates, so you’re prepared to navigate the world’s busiest airport and get to your destination safely.

GET TO THE AIRPORT EARLY

The best way to avoid missing your flight is to get to the airport early and allow extra time to navigate potential detours and delays.

Hartsfield-Jackson is advising travelers to get to the airport 3 hours before their flight during busy periods.

You may need extra time to:

  • Find parking: Because construction has resulted in the closure of thousands of parking spaces next to the domestic terminal, the airport’s parking lots often reach capacity, forcing travelers without parking reservations to search elsewhere for spaces. Shuttle service may also be operated less frequently than you’re used to, requiring longer waits.
  • Check bags: During peak periods, travelers may encounter long lines at airline ticket counters to check bags.
  • Get special assistance: Some wheelchair handling contractors are short-staffed, requiring longer waits. Airport officials are advising passengers who need wheelchair service to arrive four hours early.
  • Go through security: Some security lanes at the Atlanta airport have been closed off for an 18-month project to upgrade equipment at the main checkpoint. Security lines can be more than an hour long during busy periods. TSA PreCheck and Clear lines can also get lengthy during busy periods. You’ll find online updates on security wait times at atl.com/times — but beware that you may end up waiting in line much longer than the times displayed when you check them.
  • Buy food or beverages: Concessions may have long lines for food during peak periods.

WHAT TO PACK

Make sure you don’t pack prohibited weapons or other items in your bags. You can check TSA’s website to learn what’s prohibited.

TSA recommends travelers avoid wrapping gifts if possible. If a wrapped item triggers an alarm during screening, a security officer will need to unwrap it to determine if it is a security threat. Jams, jellies and syrups are considered liquids and cannot be in carry-on bags if the container is larger than 3.4 oz.

PARKING

Parking is causing frustrations for many travelers because of construction closures and the shutdown of the South economy lot, which had 3,000 spaces. The airport is building a new parking deck on the site, but it will take three years to complete.

When parking decks and lots at the terminal reach capacity, motorists looking for spots get turned away.

Hourly parking costs $3 per hour for the first and second hours. Economy parking near the terminal costs $14 a day while daily parking is $19 a day.

There are other choices, and it helps to plan ahead and be prepared.

Consider taking MARTA to the airport. You can take a train to the MARTA Airport Station inside the domestic terminal. A few stations on the Red Line and Gold Line have long-term parking for $5 or $8 per day. Find more information on the MARTA website.

If you do plan to park at the airport, it’s a good idea to make a reservation.

There are a variety of off-airport parking lots along Camp Creek Parkway and other locations around the airport. It’s a good idea to check with your off-airport parking lot operator for any changes or new policies.

The off-airport parking shuttle pickup location has been moved back to the Lower North curbside, down the escalator and outside door LN 1.

Private off-airport parking lots can also fill up quickly, and may turn away motorists who don’t have a reservation. It’s a good idea to book a space online in advance.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

The airport also takes reservations for its ATL West deck, ATL Select parking lot and international terminal parking decks.

The ATL West parking deck at 4199 SkyTrain Way in College Park is connected to the domestic terminal by SkyTrain and allows you to pay via Peach Pass. It costs $16 a day, which is more than economy parking but less than daily parking.

The ATL Select park-ride lot is located at 1800 Sullivan Road in College Park, a new option after the closure of Park Ride Lot A to make way for construction of a taxiway end-around. The ATL Select lot costs $10 a day for uncovered parking, as does Park Ride Lot C. ATL Select covered parking costs $14 a day, the same rate as North economy parking.

While the ATL West deck and ATL Select lot were built in the last few years to supplement parking, they sometimes reach capacity.

CELLPHONE LOT

Hartsfield-Jackson’s cellphone lot moved last year to 1920 Autoport Drive in College Park.

The current cellphone lot is farther from the terminal, but more centrally located for motorists going to both Terminal South and Terminal North to pick up friends or family arriving on flights.

“Meeter-greeters” can head to the cellphone lot that sits west of the terminal to wait for arrivals. Motorists can follow signs to the cellphone lot on message boards along airport roads.

At the terminal, lanes along the curbside may be separated by cones for “in-lane” drop-offs and pickups. Passengers can get in and out of vehicles from all lanes.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

AIRPORT SECURITY

Hartsfield-Jackson has four checkpoints in the domestic terminal, including the Main checkpoint, the North checkpoint, South checkpoint and Lower North checkpoint.

Construction work at the main checkpoint is causing long lines from the closure of some security lanes.

If you’re a PreCheck member, go to the South checkpoint. Non-PreCheck members can use the Main or North checkpoints.

SECURITY LINE CHOICES

Standard, PreCheck and Clear. You can check the airport’s website at atl.com/times for security wait times.

STANDARD:

Standard TSA lines typically require travelers to remove their coats, shoes and belts. Listen to instructions from officers on whether to remove electronics and liquids from bags, which depends on the type of baggage screening equipment in use.

TSA PRECHECK:

The TSA PreCheck lines at the domestic terminal are at the South checkpoint.

New this year, PreCheck members have the option of adding a digital version of their driver’s license or ID to their Apple Wallet on iPhones or to their Google Wallet on Android phones, and then using their phones as their ID at the South checkpoint.

Also at the South checkpoint, Delta customers who opt in can go to a dedicated line for Delta Digital ID, which uses facial recognition to process travelers.

At security checkpoints across the country, TSA PreCheck offers expedited screening, with the ability to keep on your shoes, belt and jacket. The cost to enroll in PreCheck is as low as $78 for five years. It costs $70 to renew online.

TSA has encouraged travelers to sign up for PreCheck to get through screening more efficiently and reduce touchpoints such as the need to handle a bin in some cases.

You can apply online and schedule an appointment at a PreCheck enrollment center.

CLEAR:

Biometric ID technology firm Clear operates specially designated security lines for its members at Hartsfield-Jackson. The company sells memberships for $189 a year, with discounts for Delta SkyMiles members. Clear members at the checkpoint can verify their identities through an iris scan or fingerprints.

The Clear line at the South checkpoint is for PreCheck-enrolled Clear members.

The Clear line for non-PreCheck Clear members going through standard security has moved to the Lower North checkpoint.

REAL ID DELAY:

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government delayed plans to start requiring travelers to have “Real ID” designated driver licenses or IDs to get through airport security checkpoints. The “Real ID” requirement will now take effect May 7, 2025. Most Georgia drivers have the updated Real ID licenses with a star in the top right corner but those with older licenses that are not Real ID compliant should get new licenses if they plan to use them during air travel in May 2025 or later.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

AT THE AIRPORT

There are now upper-level pedestrian bridges connecting the domestic terminal to the upper levels of the Terminal South and Terminal North parking decks. Take elevators or stairs up from the parking decks to reach the pedestrian bridges that connect to the terminal.

Because of construction of a Plane Train extension and new escalators and elevators, travelers who arrive on flights in Atlanta and need to use elevators (such as for strollers or wheelchairs) must exit at Concourse T. During certain overnight construction periods, all travelers must walk from Concourse T to the domestic terminal and baggage claim. Listen for announcements on the Plane Train and signs that direct travelers to baggage claim.

Passengers headed to Concourse D will also see construction zones, as the airport works on a years-long project to widen that concourse. Work is also underway on an extension of Concourse E.

MINUTE SUITES

There are now four Minute Suites locations offering sleep units inside the airport.

Minute Suites opened new locations this year on Concourse F and Concourse E. The Concourse E location, which opened in October, has 16 sleep suites and two showers.

There are also two Minute Suites locations on Concourse B, including one that opened in 2022 with a restroom with a shower.

PRIVATE VIP TERMINAL

A luxury VIP terminal set apart from the main terminal opened at Hartsfield-Jackson in September, offering creature comforts and a private security screening room for passengers willing to pay extra for the privilege.

The PS terminal is on the north side of the Atlanta airfield with a lounge, bar and three suites. It costs $1,095 per person for each visit to the PS terminal lounge, or $4,850 for a private suite for up to four travelers. That does not include the cost of the flight.

CONCESSIONS

Some concessions at the airport have become congested with long lines or waits for food. Hartsfield-Jackson has information on its website on concessions, or read the AJC’s comprehensive guide to eating in the airport.

If you buy food in the domestic terminal before going through security, be aware that you cannot bring liquids of more than 3.4 oz. through the security checkpoint and officers may ask travelers to separate some food from carry-ons for screening in X-ray machines.

Although you can’t bring beverages through screening, you can bring an empty water bottle from home and fill it up at filling stations on the concourses, or you can buy a beverage after passing through security.

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

AIRLINES

You can use airlines’ apps and websites to check in online and seek customer service, reducing touchpoints and crowds at the airport.

Major carriers including Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines have discontinued many of their change fees, making it easier for people to change their travel plans.

Delta last year started boarding many of its domestic flights earlier to improve on-time performance. The airline increased the time allowed for boarding single-aisle, narrow-body planes to 40 minutes from 35 minutes.

As of this year, Delta offers free Wi-Fi on most of its domestic fleet, with plans to equip its international and regional jet fleets with free Wi-Fi by the end of 2024.

If you have a Delta Sky Club membership or plan to go to a Sky Club during your trip, be aware that some of them have long lines and wait times to enter during peak periods. The rebound in travel combined with extensions of elite frequent flier status during the pandemic is causing congestion inside the airport lounges.

TERMINAL SOUTH

  • Delta

TERMINAL NORTH

  • Southwest
  • American
  • Frontier
  • Spirit
  • JetBlue
  • United
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Southern Airways Express

INTERNATIONAL TERMINAL

  • Delta
  • Air Canada
  • Air France
  • British Airways
  • Copa Airlines
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • KLM
  • Korean Air
  • Lufthansa
  • Qatar Airways
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • WestJet

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

RIDESHARE PICKUP ZONES:

The airport has a Rideshare Pickup Zone near the Terminal North economy lot, about a five-minute walk from the terminal.

The pickup zones are for users of Uber and Lyft, as well as customers of HERide, a female-friendly ride-share app that launched in Atlanta in September.

There are no rideshare pickup areas at Terminal South. Drop-offs before your flight will still be at curbside.

To get to the Rideshare Pickup Zone, walk through the Terminal North baggage claim, then take an escalator down to the lower level. Exit out to the curbside and follow orange signs to walk across the crosswalk, go into the parking deck, turn left at the sign and follow the path. Cross over another crosswalk to the pickup zone and then request your ride after arriving.

TAXIS:

The Atlanta City Council in June voted to increase cab fares in Atlanta. The new city ordinance sets a minimum fare of $10 for each trip.

It also raised cab fares from $2.50 to $3.50 for the first 1/8 mile. Each additional 1/8 mile went up from 25 cents to 30 cents.

Flat rates from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to downtown, Midtown and Buckhead have also increased. Airport-downtown trips are $36 up from $30, airport-Midtown trips are $38 up from $32 and airport-Buckhead trips are $48 up from $40.

Find more travel tips at AJC.com/travel

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