TSA prepares for busy summer travel season

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

For Memorial Day holiday: As many as 10 million travelers expected in and out of nation’s airports

Travelers should brace for large crowds at airports as the busy summer travel season begins this Memorial Day weekend, with as many as 10 million people expected to pass through the nation’s airports during the holiday period.

More than 2.65 million passengers passed through airport security checkpoints nationally on Friday and again on Sunday, up about 12% from last year and reaching the highest levels since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Transportation Security Administration figures.

The heavy volumes are expected to continue this Memorial Day weekend, according to TSA Administrator David Pekoske, in Atlanta for the agency’s national press conference, held on Monday at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

“Over the course of the summer, we will see record levels of air travel,” he said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The busiest days of the Memorial Day travel period are expected to be this Thursday and Friday, according to Pekoske. Monday, May 29, will be similarly busy.

As crowds fill planes and airport terminals, the aviation industry continues to face staffing issues that threaten to stymie the summer travel season.

Many are bracing for potential problems, after a painful travel season in the summer of 2022 marked by crew shortages and mass cancellations and continued flight disruptions this year.

TSA has been adding options for security screening to improve the process.

Last week, officials announced that PreCheck members in Georgia can now use a digital ID on their iPhones to get through airport security checkpoints, instead of taking out their driver’s licenses.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Pekoske announced Monday that TSA will now allow members of its PreCheck trusted traveler program to take their teenage children ages 13-17 through PreCheck lines with them for expedited screening when traveling on the same reservation, in addition to their younger children. The agency has been encouraging travelers to join PreCheck, which costs $78 for five years, to increase efficiency at security checkpoints.

TSA is also increasing pay for workers to boost staffing and reduce turnover, and is pushing for budget approval to continue those pay levels, Pekoske said. The agency is still about 6% short of its target staffing level, he said.

Meanwhile, TSA is using its national deployment force of about 1,000 employees who volunteer to be dispatched to other airports during busy periods.

The TSA workforce at Hartsfield-Jackson is fully staffed and has an extra 64 workers who can be sent to other airports, according to Robert Spinden, federal director at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

“We’re well-positioned for this weekend,” Spinden said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport expects to handle about 2.1 million passengers from Thursday, May 25, through Wednesday, May 31. Last year’s Memorial Day brought roughly 2 million travelers through the world’s busiest airport.

TSA said it aims to keep security wait times at 30 minutes or less in standard security lines, and 10 minutes or less at PreCheck.

Chez Ewing, who traveled to Atlanta on Monday for a conference, said long waits are “one thing I cannot stand going through security,” and having PreCheck “just cuts down on the wait times.”

Still, at peak times, lines of travelers waiting to get through security screening at Hartsfield-Jackson can stretch through the atrium and into baggage claim areas.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines expects to carry 2.8 million passengers during the Memorial Day travel period May 25-29 — up 17% from last year.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Delta CEO Ed Bastian says the airline has added 25,000 people to its staff “to meet the rise in demand,” and is drawing on lessons from last summer.

“We’ve invested heavily in aircraft maintenance in key cities around the world so we can more quickly address any mechanical issues to get you on your way,” Bastian told frequent fliers in email last week. “We’re ready to serve you this summer,” he pledged.

Nicholas Calio, president of industry group Airlines for America, said at Monday’s press conference that airlines are operating 10% fewer flights than they did pre-pandemic, but carrying 2.5% more passengers, thanks to larger planes.

“We’re staffed up now more than we were, and we’re at our highest level in the last two decades,” Calio said.

But he said carriers have found that post-pandemic, “we need more employees for each flight than we had before,” including reserve crews to prepare for disruptions, including air traffic controller shortages and other issues.

AAA also forecast record numbers of air travelers over the Memorial Day period, even though its booking data showed a 40% increase in air fares to certain top destinations such as Orlando, New York City and Las Vegas.

In addition to the millions of air travelers, many more will take to the road for trips this weekend. Gas prices in Georgia averaged $3.25 for a gallon of regular unleaded on Monday, down 13 cents from a month ago and down 89 cents from a year ago, according to AAA.

Memorial Day road trip

While many flights are packed, the majority of people going on Memorial Day trips of at least 50 miles will drive. About 1.18 million people in Georgia are forecast to take road trips during the Memorial Day holiday period, up from 1.11 million last year and 1.17 million in the same period of 2019.

On the roads, AAA expects the worst congestion to come Thursday evening and Friday before Memorial Day, as vacationers set off on trips. Monday and Tuesday when people return home will also be crowded. Gas prices in Georgia averaged $3.25 for a gallon of regular unleaded on Monday, down 13 cents from a month ago and down 89 cents from a year ago, according to AAA.