Even with TSA PreCheck, Andrew Arbuckle-Lockwood has started arriving at Denver International Airport at least two and a half hours before his flights.
The Denver resident can usually bypass long security lines. But on his most recent trip, he found himself stuck in a 30-minute queue with other PreCheckers.
The line snaked outside of the north security checkpoint and all the way to the baggage claim area, Arbuckle-Lockwood said.
“The look of shock on people’s faces as they rounded the corner was priceless,” he said. “People were in disbelief. The line was moving, but people were saying ‘it’s not even worth it anymore.'”
The frustration with long security has become an almost daily occurrence at the airport as passenger traffic rebounds strongly from pandemic lows. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently logged its highest-volume day since before the pandemic on Oct. 14, screening more than 76,000 people — more than half before lunchtime.
It doesn’t help that DIA’s security infrastructure was built to meet the needs of air travel levels from two decades ago.
And while an expanded security checkpoint on Level 6 is coming as part of the Great Hall renovation, it isn’t scheduled to open until 2024.
Bottlenecks are the result in the meantime — especially around busy travel times like school breaks and holidays. Before planning your next trip and heading to the airport, there are a few things you can do to prepare.
Pick a less-busy day or time to fly
Both TSA and airport managers say the primary drivers of long lines are high passenger volume and limited capacity. In short, when more flights are departing, security lines are longer.
TSA has an app you can download that has wait time estimates (broken down by day of the week and the hour). So, if it’s possible, consider flying on a day or at a time with less traffic. Plus, DIA updates its wait times live on its website.
Sundays, Mondays and Fridays typically have the longest average wait times, according to TSA historical data. Times fluctuate throughout the day, but Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and Saturdays have lower averages.
Average waits also tend to tail off in the late afternoon and evening, according to TSA. So booking a later flight is likely to land you in security at a less-crowded time.
If you’re stuck flying on a specific day, you can at least check how long your wait is likely to be. If it’s long, make sure to pay attention to the next tip.
Arrive early and remember that the first checkpoint you see isn’t necessarily the fastest
Airport leaders stress that passengers should arrive at the airport no later than two hours before their flight is scheduled to depart. That doesn’t include parking time.
That’s even more important now that travel is back to pre-pandemic levels, said Lorie Dankers, a spokeswoman for TSA’s western region.
“Sadly, there is no substitute in Denver these days for arriving early and prepared,” Dankers said. “It’s probably going to be crowded. There are tens of thousands of people traveling alongside you.”
TSA has been on a hiring spree lately, Dankers said, but technology glitches and staff shortages have forced TSA to close lines unexpectedly some days, which can slow things down significantly.
Knowing which checkpoint to go to can also save you a few minutes of wandering around the construction-laden terminal. The airport rolled out a new configuration ahead of the holidays last year. It also made some tweaks this summer.
These days, the south security checkpoint (the one closer to the hotel) is primarily used for 24-hour standard screening. There are two TSA PreCheck lanes, but airport managers don’t recommend you go to those first if you have the service.
Instead, head to the north security checkpoint on the opposite side of the Great Hall if you have PreCheck. The area is primarily used to screen travelers with the service from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m.
TSA will periodically flex the entire north checkpoint to PreCheck lanes only. So, if you don’t have the service, it’s safe to just jump in the south checkpoint line.
But when the north checkpoint is open to everyone, airport officials recommend taking the few extra minutes to walk there. Officials said that because the south screening is closer and more visible from the main entrance, most people head straight there, which means the north screening tends to have shorter lines.
For that reason, the smaller, sneakier A-Bridge checkpoint also often has shorter lines. It’s just for standard screening and is open between 4:30 a.m and 5:45 p.m. every day. PreCheck isn’t available in this area.
You can track the live wait times at each checkpoint here.
Get TSA PreCheck or CLEAR if you can afford them
If it makes financial sense, consider one (or both) services that allow you to enter an expedited line at the security checkpoint. You also don’t have to take your shoes off when you walk through the body scanner, among other things.
PreCheck costs $85 and is valid for five years once approved. It’s open to U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals and permanent residents who pass a background check.
You have to apply online and schedule an appointment at an enrollment center ahead of your trip, though, so don’t wait until the last minute.
Security waits for people with PreCheck average around five minutes, according to TSA. Denverites who responded to a callout for traveler tips cited this as their best advice for people who want to avoid longer lines.
CLEAR is a private biometric screening company that does ID verification. It is different from PreCheck.
The service allows customers to bypass TSA identification checkpoints and head straight to the line for the body and luggage scanners. A standard membership costs $189 a year.
Having both services is a game changer for travel, said Jeff Price, a professor of aviation security and management at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He was also assistant director of security at DIA in its first years after opening.
“It’s really a front of the line pass,” Price said. “It has saved me from missing flights.”
Price said he expects to see enrollment for those services jump up in the coming months as more people give up on waiting in standard lines.
“Passengers are all going back on vacation after COVID,” he said. “And I think it’s the real destination airports where you’re seeing a lot more lines back up.”
New security checkpoints are coming, but probably not before you fly next
DIA CEO Phil Washington and airport officials acknowledge that lines are a problem and they say they’re working on more ways to fix it.
The airport is in the midst of its Great Hall expansion project, which includes the addition of a new security checkpoint on the northwest side of level 6, where some airline check-in counters used to be.
It will have “improved technology and a new queuing concept that will provide more effective and efficient security,” according to the airport’s description. It is scheduled to open in early 2024, although the project has seen construction delays in recent years.
Another new checkpoint is slated for the northeast side of level 6. The airport hasn’t rolled out a timeline for that project yet, but expects security capacity to grow 60 percent when it opens.
“The industry goal is to literally have you walk down a corridor and have all those screening processes take place on you and your bags without you even having to stop,” Price said. “A lot of the technology is headed in that direction.”
But that’s a long ways off, he said. For now, it’s best to do what you can to be prepared and not hold up the line.
“It’s easy stuff like don’t take liquid through these areas,” he said. “Don’t be that person that’s gonna slow everything down.”