By Christine Wei
May 23, 2016
TSA Lines
Credit: Getty Images

In the past two weeks, thousands of travelers have missed or come dangerously close to missing their flights due to long airport security lines. With waits of up to three hours—and little long-term relief in sight—airlines are spending their own money to solve the TSA problem. Here’s what you need to know about the situation.

Which Airports Are Not Affected By TSA?

For starters, TSA’s recent personnel cuts and high turnover rate are partly to blame for the chaos. And while privatization in transportation remains controversial, the 22 airports in the country that currently use private contractors to handle security are more immune to internal changes within the TSA—meaning that, beyond accounting for seasonal crowds, it’s generally been business as usual at these airports. Travelers flying through to the below hubs won’t need to alter their typical routines:

  • Bert Mooney Airport (BTM), Butte, MT
  • Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN), Belgrade, MT
  • Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport (STS), Santa, Rosa, CA
  • Dawson Community Airport (GDV), Glendive, MT
  • Glacier Park International Airport (FCA), Kalispell, MT
  • Greater Rochester International Airport (ROC), Rochester, NY
  • Havre CityCounty Airport (HVR), Havre, MT
  • Jackson Hole Airport (JAC), Jackson, WY
  • Kansas City International Airport (MCI), Kansas City, MO
  • Key West International Airport (EYW), Key West, FL
  • L. M. Clayton Airport (OLF), Wolf Point, MT
  • Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB), Sanford, FL
  • Portsmouth International Airport (PSM), Portsmouth, NH
  • Punta Gorda Airport (PGD), Punta Gorda, FL
  • Roswell International Air Center (ROW), Roswell, NM
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO), San Francisco, CA
  • SarasotaBradenton International Airport (SRQ), Sarasota, FL
  • SidneyRichland Municipal Airport (SDY), Sidney, MT
  • Sioux Falls Regional Airport (FSD), Sioux Falls, SD
  • Tupelo Regional Airport (TUP), Tupelo, MS
  • Wokal Field/Glasgow International Airport (GGW), Glasgow, MT
  • Yellowstone Airport (WYS), West Yellowstone, MT

How Much Earlier Do I Need to Arrive at the Airport?

If you’re not flying out of one of the above 22 airports, you will need to budget a bit more time. It’s worth mentioning that extra staff is being dispatched to and trained at congested airports, and TSA has additional plans to beef up support, but it’s difficult to predict how quickly all of it will impact travel.

In the meantime, the best bet for getting a handle on an airport’s security situation is to check its website and social media channels for alerts. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, for example, posts real-time wait times for all of its checkpoints online, and its Track-a-Line program emails any changes in wait time to passengers. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has been very active on Twitter with updates and responses to individual queries, even directing people to less-crowded checkpoints. (There are a few apps for tracking wait times on the market, but they are less dependable—mostly because they rely on crowd-sourcing and user participation.)

Otherwise, for general peak times and high-traffic trends, tweet at @AskTSA, the TSA’s official customer service handle. (The account team does hold business hours, so you may not receive an immediate reply late at night.) You can also try tapping into travel- and flight-focused forums like FlyerTalk. Search for your specific terminal to read other travelers’ reports, or post your own question.

If you’re flying out of major hubs that are historically painful to pass through, exercise caution and allocate more time than usual. Chicago O'Hare, Phoenix Sky Harbor, LAX, and JFK are among the airports making headlines recently with their wait-time horror stories.

What Else Can I Do To Avoid The Lines?

There are good evergreen strategies for getting through security more quickly and making your flight with time to spare. Before traveling, consider smaller airports in your region that may be less crowded. Sign up for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry—we have a detailed guide to the process—for access to fast-tracked lines. Special airline packages and airline status can expedite the check-in and security processes as well.

If you avoid checking bags like many savvy travelers do these days, take a minute to double-check that your carry-on actually meets the size limit to avoid getting stopped—some suitcases billed as carry-ons are in fact too large. See a long line? Look for alternate security checkpoints in the terminal or even at a neighboring terminal, provided there’s a walkway back to your gate past security. And don’t forget to use airport maps or tools like GateGuru, which helps you navigate more efficiently once you’re through.