“It’s just volume, pure volume,” said Hartsfield-Jackson interim general manager Balram Bheodari.
Around the country, more than 1.8 million people passed through airport security checkpoints on Sunday, down 29% from 2019 levels but the highest level since early March 2020.
The rapid return of hundreds of thousands of travelers, spurred by vaccinations and the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions, has overwhelmed some parts of the air travel industry.
At Hartsfield-Jackson, in addition to wearing masks and being in the terminal two hours early, travelers should allow extra time if they are parking. Some parking lots remain closed due to the pandemic and other lots have been reaching capacity during busy periods.
Parking and security aren’t the only pinch points at the airport. Lines for Southwest Airlines baggage check inside the terminal Monday morning were long, as was a queue of travelers outside waiting for curbside check-in.
Business travelers have been slow to return to the skies, but more people are venturing out for vacations and trips to see family. Since many business travelers don’t check bags, an increased share of leisure travelers typically means more passengers checking luggage.
Dallas-based Southwest said it is fully staffed at Hartsfield-Jackson with more than 600 employees, but acknowledged the long wait times Monday morning. The airline said its leadership team “is aware of (Monday) morning’s issues and remains committed to meeting the demands of the peak travel times as the airline welcomes back additional customers this summer.”
Elsewhere around the airport, airline and airport officials said there is a labor crunch.
“The labor shortage — it’s affecting every industry,” Bheodari said.
Delta Air Lines is asking employees at its Atlanta headquarters to help clean and staff airport lounges because of a worker shortage.
The airline told employees its Sky Clubs in Atlanta, which have all reopened, are “severely understaffed,” by 115 people, due to a contractor shortfall.
In a memo, Delta asks employees in Atlanta to volunteer for a few hours to help with cleaning, wiping tables, running food and restocking food buffets.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian said during a CNN interview last week that his biggest concern was having enough workers “not just of our company — because we have our employees there — but the service contractors.”
While CARES Act funding for airlines came with stipulations that restricted carriers from laying off employees, that prohibition didn’t prevent thousands of layoffs and furloughs by aviation contractors, which make up a large part of the workforce at the airport.
“We have been down for about a year now. As you start to turn this big machine on, it takes some time,” Bastian said. “It’s going to be a little creaky for a while, to go from load factors of 40 to 50% to 80 to 90% almost overnight.”
Companies that operate Sky Clubs, restaurants and shops on the concourses also face some additional staffing challenges. Employees who work in areas of the airport beyond security checkpoints must go through extensive federal background checks. That means hiring and security clearances can take longer, and it is often more difficult for employers to find enough workers who can pass the vetting process.
Sky Club contractor Sodexo is hiring full-time janitorial workers, cooks, dishwashers, food service and wait staff and paying from $10.90 to $13 an hour, and its website touts sign-on and attendance bonuses of up to $2,000 and an employee referral bonus of up to $1,000.
“The service workers in the hospitality sector in the U.S. are straining for workers. But we’re doing what we have to do. We’re having to pay bonuses to bring people in,” Bastian said on CNN.
Airport businesses are rushing to scale up operations as Memorial Day weekend approaches, the traditional start of the peak summer season when big crowds are expected.
Delta had kept middle seats on its planes open, to create distance between passengers, but this month began filling them again.
Hartsfield-Jackson on Sunday reopened its international park-ride deck, and the domestic side of the airport has a new ATL West deck connected to the terminal via SkyTrain. That’s an option for travelers, particularly when economy lots are full.
The airport-run park-ride lots at the domestic terminal have not yet reopened, though airport officials are working on a plan. The airport’s parking contractor, ABM-Lanier-Hunt, is hiring cashiers, shuttle drivers and supervisors to accommodate the increased demand.
TSA passenger counts at security checkpoints nationally
May 16, 2021: 1,850,531
Year ago: 253,807
Two years ago: 2,620,276
May 15, 2021: 1,453,267
Year ago: 193,340
Two years ago: 2,091,116
May 14, 2021: 1,716,561
Year ago: 250,467
Two years ago: 2,664,549