Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson readies for Memorial Day airport crowds

The main security checkpoint was full as lines at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport stretched through the domestic terminal atrium and down hallways early Monday morning, May 17, 2021.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
The main security checkpoint was full as lines at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport stretched through the domestic terminal atrium and down hallways early Monday morning, May 17, 2021. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Hartsfield-Jackson International is preparing for 1.5 million people to pass through the airport over the six-day Memorial Day travel period starting Wednesday, and officials are warning that travelers should be prepared for crowds.

Passenger traffic at the Atlanta airport has recovered to more than 70% of pre-pandemic levels, according to Balram Bheodari, the interim general manager.

Recent security wait times of more than 40 minutes during peak periods, long lines to check baggage, crowded concourses and parking lots reaching capacity mark a return of the hassles of flying.

It’s expected to be even busier over the Memorial Day holiday period that marks the official start of the summer travel season. But airport officials say they are ready.

“We have prepared for this surge,” Bheodari said.

The busiest day of the holiday weekend is expected to be Monday, when an estimated 290,000 to 300,000 passengers are expected to pass through Hartsfield-Jackson. Before COVID-19 struck, causing air travel to decline by 60% last year, the airport handled more than 310,000 passengers a day during busy periods.

The Atlanta airport has reopened concourses and gates, though some of its restaurants, shops and park-ride lots remain closed. Demand has not yet fully recovered, and “one of the challenges in the industry right now is hiring adequate numbers of staff,” Bheodari said.

Travel has quickly rebounded in recent weeks, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that it’s safe for people who are fully vaccinated to travel domestically. More than 1.8 million people passed through airport security checkpoints nationally on the busiest of the last 10 days, compared with 2 million to 2.8 million a day in 2019, according to Transportation Security Administration figures.

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Flying to Atlanta from Chicago on Tuesday, traveler Carmoneta Horton-Mayfield was surprised to see such heavy crowds. “We were not expecting this,” she said. “We flew in thinking it would be kind of quiet,” but after arriving found packed airport restaurants and every restroom she passed on the concourse had a line.

Traveler Seth Morgan has been flying regularly for business, and last year got used to flights with only about 20 passengers on them. Now that planes and airports are more crowded, “I’d almost rather go back to fewer people on the plane,” he said after landing in Atlanta on a flight from Houston.

About 55,000 passengers a day are passing through security checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson now, which doesn’t include the majority of passengers just passing through on connecting flights or arriving in Atlanta. TSA Atlanta federal security director Robert Spinden expects that number to rise to about 65,000 to 70,000 a day this summer. The agency has hired about 200 officers to staff Atlanta airport security checkpoints so far this year, and will continue hiring this summer.

Officials warn travelers to get to the terminal two hours before their flights, to wear masks as federally required in airports and on airplanes through Sept. 13, and to check their bags for items not allowed through security checkpoints including guns, other weapons and prohibited items. So far this year, at least 172 guns have been caught at security checkpoints at the Atlanta airport, which had the most gun discoveries nationally last year.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines expects to carry more than 2 million passengers over the Memorial Day holiday period across its route network. Matt Sparks, Delta’s Atlanta vice president of airport operations, said surveys indicate more than 75% of the airline’s customers plan to be vaccinated by early summer.

This month Delta started filling middle seats again and has removed distancing stickers from airport floors due to heavier passenger volumes. The airline also plans to shift from electrostatic spraying of planes before every flight to spraying them overnight as it adds more flights and needs quicker turnarounds.

Delta continues to enforce mask requirements. It recently added language to its SkyMiles program rules warning that customers who are “disorderly, abusive or violent” during travel or when interacting with Delta employees may have their SkyMiles memberships terminated and could lose their miles and credits.

The Federal Aviation Administration also has a zero tolerance policy for unruly passengers and has been fining violators, including a proposed $52,500 penalty for a Delta passenger who twice struck a flight attendant on a flight last December.

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