Most Annoying Airport Security Checkpoints
Anyone who flies has suffered the agony of long security lines, intrusive X-ray scans or pat downs, and confusing rules.
But which airports incite the most frustration? As part of our first-ever airport survey, Travel + Leisure asked readers to rate the check-in and security process at 22 major domestic airports. We’re highlighting the lowest-ranking airports—those with the most annoying security checkpoints—and have researched the factors and headline-making incidents that may have contributed to readers’ opinions.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is an easy scapegoat, and security expert Bruce Schneier understands the frustration with the federal agency. “Airport security is just so focused on details like shoes or liquids, whatever the terrorists did last time. It’s like saying, ‘I’m worried about burglaries, so I’m gonna put all my effort on the third window on the left.’”
“Early on, TSA had some real challenges that they really didn’t understand, but I think they’re doing a lot more right these days that people just don’t see,” counters Jeffrey Price, a professor of aerospace science at Denver’s Metropolitan State University. He points to recent innovations like the PreCheck program for frequent flyers, risk-based screening, and alternative screening procedures for passengers under 12 and over 75 years of age.
Some bigger proposals may be grounded by the age of the airports themselves. Most U.S. airport terminals were built well before today’s sprawling security procedures, and older, smaller airports like New York’s LaGuardia feel those limitations the most. But even larger, newer Orlando MCO—whose security checkpoints readers rated seventh-most annoying—is saddled with designs that inhibit rather than aid passenger flow.
Fliers can also be their own worst enemies when it comes to slowing down security lines. You know the offenders: those with excess carry-on baggage, who don’t follow the well-publicized rules, who try to sneak things past security. Every year, the TSA confiscates thousands of contraband items, including live animals, drugs, and loaded guns.
Southern U.S. airports are especially prone to firearm seizures, with the most incidents at Atlanta Hartsfield–Jackson. LAX, which readers crowned as the airport with the most annoying security checkpoints, has its own homegrown challenge: celebrities. They can cause a ruckus—and delays—because of trailing paparazzi or because some feel entitled to take banned items through security.
Predicting and avoiding long airport security lines is becoming a science unto itself. The TSA has created an app where passengers can post airport security waiting times. But days and sometimes weeks go by between updates, making the app only marginally useful. Ifly.com posts average wait times for all major U.S. airports, broken down by checkpoint and time of day. But again, its times are estimates based on the TSA’s historical averages, not what’s happening in the given moment.
And it’s that continued uncertainty and inability to plan that travelers dread. As Price puts it: “You can be in screening for five minutes or for an hour.”
No. 1 Los Angeles (LAX)
LAX is plagued by a number of issues that can slow security, from celebrities who feel they can flaunt the rules to a huge volume of international travelers (roughly 25 percent). But one of the most alarming trends is the smuggling of contraband items past security: everything from a guy with live snakes down his pants to 40,000 tabs of counterfeit Viagra.
No. 2 New York (LGA)
One of the smallest major airports, LaGuardia was not designed to accommodate a sprawling 21st-century security apparatus. But here’s a bit of encouraging news: X-ray body scanners at LGA (and JFK) are being replaced by millimeter wave scanners that work faster and should speed up the security process. Still, an ongoing beef is security personnel who are too “hands on.” Urban planner Nancy Campbell is among those allegedly groped. “If I had been physically attacked,” she told the local press after her 2011 close encounter of the TSA kind, “this would have been a very, very similar experience.”
No. 3. Newark (EWR)
In early 2012, eight TSA screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport were fired for sleeping on the job and other work-related violations. And in October, improper screening of baggage spurred the TSA to announce plans to fire 25 employees and suspend another 19. The airport has also been plagued by security lapses—allowing unscreened or uncleared passengers onto the airside—that have led to terminal closures and severe flight delays.
No. 4 Philadelphia (PHL)
They may not be sleeping on the job, but a TSA agent at Philadelphia’s airport found another way to alleviate workplace boredom—and tarnish the staff’s reputation. In 2010, as a college student passed through security, a security agent confronted her, claiming he’d found a baggie filled with a white substance inside her carry-on. When she panicked, the screener (who was later fired) admitted he was “just kidding.”
No. 5 New York (JFK)
It takes longer to get through the security and check-in processes when traveling abroad, so get to the airport early—especially at JFK. With more than 23 million international travelers each year, the airport is the biggest international gateway in North America. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel (or rather queue). Terminal 6, long vilified for the worst security lines, was demolished in 2011 to make way for a modern airport expansion. And plans were approved in summer 2012 for an expansion of JetBlue’s Terminal 5 to accommodate more international flights.
No. 6 Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
O’Hare is plagued by complaints that the new PreCheck security clearance (started in March 2012) isn’t working as well as intended. Passengers vetted and cleared for the program complained they haven’t been allowed to join the express line even after their boarding passes were scanned. This appears to be largely an airline rather than TSA problem. Computer glitches and inconsistencies in passenger information (like using a middle initial instead of a full middle name) are among reasons given for the snags.
No. 7 Orlando (MCO)
If you think taking candy from a baby is going to cause a ruckus, wait until a TSA agent at Orlando International snatches the snow globe your kid just got at Disney World or Universal Studios. Snow globes contain liquid, and sometimes more than three ounces. Confiscations have happened at security checkpoints enough times to be one of MCO’s main passenger complaints. Tremendous holiday period traffic and a terminal designed so that everyone is funneled through just two security checkpoints only aggravate the process.
No. 8 Washington Dulles (IAD)
As LAX has its celebrities, so Washington Dulles has politicians and diplomats, some with a sense of entitlement that can inconvenience other fliers. The most publicized incident came in 2009 when David Vitter, the Republican senator from Louisiana, was allegedly rude to airline staff and set off a security alarm when he tried to open a security door in his rush to catch a United Airlines flight.
No. 9 Boston (BOS)
A new “behavior detection” program at Logan Airport went wrong in August 2012 when eight TSA officers were accused of racially profiling—claims backed up by fellow security agents in interviews with The New York Times. Instead of uncovering would-be terrorists, the officers allegedly targeted blacks, Asians, and Hispanics for extra screening—often based on what they were wearing rather than how they were acting—in the belief that stopping and searching such passengers would detect more illegal drugs, outstanding warrants, and illegal immigrants.
No. 10 Seattle Sea-Tac (SEA)
Seattle is a classic example of how airline hubbing can lead to longer, more irritating airport security lines. With around 150 flights departing each day, Alaska Airlines is far and away the airport’s No. 1 carrier. During the morning hubbing rush hour, the security checkpoints for Concourses A, C, and N (where most of the Alaska Airlines flights arrive and depart) can bottleneck quickly.
No. 11 Houston (IAH)
If the security screeners at George Bush Intercontinental seem a little testier than elsewhere, maybe it’s because the state of Texas practically went to war against them in 2011. The state House of Representatives passed a controversial “groping bill” making it a criminal offense for any public servant (including TSA agents) to touch the “anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast” of another person—even over clothing. The TSA threatened to cancel all flights to the Lone Star State if the bill became law. Austin quickly backed down, canceling the legislation, but hard feelings linger.
No. 12 Atlanta (ATL)
More than 92 million people flew through Atlanta Hartsfield–Jackson, the world’s busiest airport, in 2011. The airport posts wait times at four security checkpoints on its website, and fliers can sign up for a Trak-a-Line service to receive real-time wait times via emails or mobile devices. Sometimes your fellow passengers are the reason that airport security lines move too slowly. Case in point: more loaded firearms are confiscated at these checkpoints than at any other U.S. airport. In December 2011, a handgun discharged inside a carry-on bag while TSA agents were inspecting it.
No. 13 Miami International (MIA)
Security at Miami’s airport has to deal with all sorts of crazy stuff—from live animal smuggling to major drug busts—that creates hassles and delays for others trying to go through security. One of the most dramatic incidents occurred in July 2012 when two TSA agents rescued a trembling victim as her kidnappers were trying to bring her through a security checkpoint.
No. 14 Denver (DEN)
Passengers at DIA have lodged multiple complaints about security over the years, from the run-of-the-mill gripes about body scans and intrusive pat downs, to the fact that TSA agents were allowed to pass through checkpoints without going through the same security procedures as everyone else. One of the most publicized incidents took place in 2011, when screeners allegedly barred a pregnant woman from passing through a checkpoint and boarding her flight because she was carrying ice packs and insulin to treat her diabetes.