Better get there early: Long security lines bog down Atlanta airport

Columbus Day weekend drawing potentially record-setting passenger volumes at world’s busiest airport
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s domestic atrium, seen on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, fills up with long lines of travelers waiting to go through security on busy days. (John Spink /

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s domestic atrium, seen on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, fills up with long lines of travelers waiting to go through security on busy days. (John Spink /

Long lines stretched through the terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Friday morning with security wait times during busy periods of more than an hour at times, and potentially record-setting passenger volumes.

The Transportation Security Administration expected to process more than 100,000 passengers through its security checkpoints Friday, and could set a record surpassing even the crowds on the Monday after the Super Bowl in Atlanta in 2019. The number of passengers transiting though security should be lighter on Saturday.

On Friday morning, lines of passengers waiting to clear security twisted through baggage claim. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution employee reported waiting an hour-and-45 minutes to clear security before 11 a.m. at the main checkpoint to make his flight.

Hartsfield-Jackson, which is renovating its security checkpoints, has been vexed by long waits to clear the crush of passengers. Construction on airport roads and parking facilities has also confused and frustrated travelers.

The Federal Aviation Administration forecasts that this weekend with the Columbus Day holiday will be its busiest holiday weekend for flights so far this year.

Some travelers said they waited in lines for an hour and a half or more. Lines during busy periods at Hartsfield-Jackson extend through the atrium and then snake through baggage claim, causing some to miss their flights.

Security lines snaked through the baggage claim area at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on the morning of Friday, October 6, 2023.

Credit: Pete Corson

icon to expand image

Credit: Pete Corson

TSA screened more than 21,000 people between 4:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Friday morning, according to TSA spokesman Mark Howell. That’s equivalent to 8,400 people an hour, or 140 people each minute.

“When you’ve got that much volume coming through you’re going to get some cascading wait times hour to hour,” Howell said. “We were staffed for it to be a busy day. It’s just volume.”

Traffic will be closer to normal levels for the rest of this weekend, with about 70,000 passengers expected through TSA checkpoints in Atlanta on Saturday.

TSA typically uses the fall period to put employees through training cycles after the busy summer travel period and before holiday season begins, but traffic has not abated this fall as it usually does.

Another factor is that several security lanes at the main checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson are closed for a long-term construction project to replace baggage screening equipment. Last year TSA opened a new lower-level North checkpoint to add capacity.

While traffic could surpass levels seen after the Super Bowl in Atlanta, TSA has also added more capacity since that time, including an expanded South security checkpoint opened in 2020 and the lower-level North checkpoint opened in November 2022.

Atlanta airport officials have advised getting to Hartsfield-Jackson two hours before domestic flights. But to avoid missing flights after waiting in long lines to check bags and get through security, some travelers are opting to instead get to the airport three hours early when traveling during busy periods.

Along with long security lines, the airport will also soon close its South economy lot, contributing to a shortage of parking next to the domestic terminal. The issue means some motorists end up driving around trying to find alternatives to park — while rushing to catch flights.

MARTA is also doing track replacement work at its Airport station at Hartsfield-Jackson on a number of evenings over the next month, which will cause delays.