A slow-moving airport security line inhabited by anxious airline passengers may seem as ubiquitous on Thanksgiving as turkey with all the trimmings.
At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the nation’s 19th-busiest in terms of security screening, the number of passengers winding their way through checkpoints this Thanksgiving is projected to increase 6.5 percent over last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Thanks to an improving economy and more-affordable airfares, about 27 million travelers are expected to travel on U.S. airlines during the holiday. The busy season comes after some MSP travelers encountered security line wait times during spring break that stretched to 40 minutes or longer, prompting widespread outrage. TSA officials say they’re ready for the roller-bag masses this Thanksgiving, however.
“We plan to have all of our available staff out at the airport, and all security screening lanes will be open,” said Cliff Van Leuven, TSA’s federal security director for Minnesota.
Van Leuven said he’s bullish about the impending holiday based on recent experience. Both MEA week in October, a popular travel time for families during teacher conferences, and the Ryder Cup golf tournament, held a few weeks earlier, beat prior-year screening records, with little drama.
Both of these fall holidays were busier than Thanksgiving last year. “MEA was really, really busy,” agreed Celia Hahn, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 899, the union that represents TSA screeners.
The real surprise was airport traffic related to the Ryder Cup, a four-day event in Chaska that drew some 250,000 golf enthusiasts from the world over. From Sunday, Oct. 2, to Tuesday, Oct. 4, screening increased 24.8 percent. On Ryder Cup Monday alone some 43,402 passengers were screened, compared with average daily traffic of about 31,000 people — a 40 percent increase.
“The nice thing about Thanksgiving and holiday travel is that the peak days are kind of stretched out,” Van Leuven said.
Maybe so, but because family travel is more prevalent during Thanksgiving, children, strollers, and inexperienced passengers may slow down the works. Plus, “it’s going to be winter, so people will have coats, so things will go a little slower,” Van Leuven said.
Another wild card: The $296 million multiyear construction project at Terminal 1, the largest of the airport’s two terminals, and home to Delta Air Lines, MSP’s dominant carrier. Currently, workers are removing the center escalators and elevators that connect the lower level of the terminal to the ticketing area.
All of TSA’s 629 local screeners will be working holiday peak hours, in some cases on mandatory overtime, Van Leuven said. Congress has authorized another 30 to 40 screeners at MSP, but it’s unclear when they will join the workforce. Even before the spring break fiasco, two locally based TSA whistleblowers testified before Congress, detailing security risks at MSP.
A big question mark for the holiday will be the weather, which could cause flight delays and cancellations, said John Heimlich, chief economist for the industry group Airlines for America. This is of special concern for Minnesota, for obvious reasons, but also because about 40 percent of MSP’s passengers are making connections to other flights.
According to federal data compiled by the website NerdWallet, MSP is the 17th-best airport in the nation for travel during the holiday season.
Nearly 10 percent of flights at MSP were delayed by 30 minutes or more in November and December from 2013 to 2015, while about 5 percent were delayed at least an hour, the survey indicated. Fewer than 1 percent of MSP’s flights were canceled, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. (Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was ranked the worst, and Honolulu International Airport the best.)
MSP “is a little bit above average,” said Courtney Miller, NerdWallet’s data analyst. “You’re not doing super well, but you’re not horrible.”
The busiest days for Thanksgiving travel are expected to be Sunday, Nov. 27; Monday, Nov. 28, and Wednesday, Nov. 23 — in that order, according to Airlines for America. Last year, the busiest day at MSP was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, with 38,780 passengers being screened, a number TSA expects will increase 4 percent this year. That would still be a few thousand people shy of Ryder Cup Monday.
Overall, the average wait time to clear security at MSP is 8 to 12 minutes, and 4 minutes for travelers with TSA PreCheck, where people pay for expedited screening, TSA said.
“If it gets over 20 minutes, we get concerned,” said Melissa Scovronski, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates MSP.
Some frequent travelers at MSP agree that security screening wait times in Terminal 1 have improved since spring break, when checkpoints were consolidated just as travelers sought to flee Minnesota’s frigid clime.
As complaints mounted about long security lines, the MAC, Gov. Mark Dayton and members of the state’s congressional delegation weighed in, prompting a trip by TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger in March, who promised the agency would do better.
Since then, Congress has permitted TSA to shift $62 million in its budget to hire hundreds of screeners nationwide. In addition, more than 200 bomb-sniffing dog teams have been deployed, although TSA officials won’t say how many are being used at MSP. If passengers pass the sniff test, they can be rerouted to PreCheck. As a result, widespread complaints about long wait-times at MSP appeared to have subsided.
Frequent traveler Cory Markert, of Minnetonka, usually flew Delta, but switched to Southwest Airlines in Terminal 2 for a few months earlier this year partly because “of the unbearable lines at Terminal 1.” But recently, Markert said the wait times at both terminals are almost indistinguishable, plus he has PreCheck.
“I usually breeze through the security lines in a matter of minutes, which is a fraction of the time it was taking earlier this year,” he said. “The only exceptions have been a few Monday mornings when the wait for PreCheck was 15 to 20 minutes, but that’s still much better than we were seeing this spring.”
But for others, security wait times are still inconsistent.
Morgann Carlon, of Minneapolis, who travels every week for her job as a technology consultant, said “earlier this summer the lines were pretty long. Waiting anywhere between 10 to 35 minutes, even in PreCheck.” Travelers complained, and “about two weeks later, line times diminished to closer to five minutes,” she said.