6 Ways to Beat the Lines at Airport Security During the Government Shutdown

Donna Rosato

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Worried about long security lines at the airport due to the federal government shutdown? There’s a lot you can do to navigate around them if you know what special programs are worth paying up for and which social media sources to check.

Wait times are growing for security lines at some airports because of staffing issues with Transportation Security Administration employees. Like many federal workers, TSA employees are not getting paid during the government shutdown.

Some TSA workers are calling in sick or saying they can’t come to work because of the financial disruption they’re facing. According to the latest update on Thursday from the TSA, 6.1 percent of its workforce took unscheduled absences on Tuesday, up from 5 percent on the same day one year ago.

Still, the TSA says wait times are in the normal range at most airports. The TSA reported that 99.9 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes to get through security at major airports Wednesday and that 95.4 percent of passengers were through the line in less than 15. In expedited entry TSA Pre-Check lanes—those reserved for people deemed low-risk after a TSA background check—passengers waited less than 10 minutes on average. 

However, you should take what the TSA says with a grain of salt, says Emily McNutt, travel editor at The Points Guy, a consumer advice site for travelers. Early January isn’t a heavy travel time, but the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend is coming up, and then winter school vacation breaks hit in February. “We know people are calling in sick. If the government closure stretches on, it could get a lot worse,” McNutt says.

Security-line wait times vary depending on the airport and other factors, including the time of day and the weather, both of which affect the number of passengers at the airport. On Monday, the standard wait time at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport, the busiest in the world based on the number of passengers passing through it, ballooned to 88 minutes. On Tuesday, it was down to 25 minutes and rose to 39 minutes on Wednesday.

How long it takes to get through security lines isn’t completely out of your control, though. There’s a lot you can do to better navigate around long security lines, strategies that will come in handy any time you travel, whether or not there’s a government shutdown. 

Speed Up Your Trip Through Security

Enroll in an expedited traveler program. One of the best ways to get through airport security faster is through a program that prescreens travelers and dedicates security lines to them. There are two: TSA PreCheck and Clear.

TSA PreCheck, which is a federal program, usually takes two to three weeks to process, so it may not help much if the shutdown ends soon. A private company, IdentoGO, operates the program at more than 200 airports in the U.S. So you can still enroll and get your application processed, though it’s possible it may take longer if there’s a surge in demand due to the shutdown.

A five-year membership costs $85. You can apply and schedule an appointment online. Then you’ll have to bring identification, such as a passport or driver’s license, to an enrollment center and have your fingerprints taken. You’ll get written notification within two or three weeks if you are approved as a low-risk traveler.

Clear is more expensive but much quicker. It costs $179 a year and is only available at 27 airports, though that includes most of the major ones in the U.S. and children under 18 are free. Note that Clear may not have a presence in every terminal even if it serves the airport.

Clear tends to have shorter lines than TSA PreCheck because it has its own dedicated kiosk where you only have to get your iris scanned and show your boarding pass. Then you’re escorted to the front of the TSA PreCheck or the regular screening line.

Clear is faster to enroll in, too: You can sign up at an airport where it’s offered or go online. If you sign up online, you then go to an enrollment center to register your fingerprints and get an iris scan. Approval, if granted, is instantaneous and you can use it immediately.

Clear offers a free one-month trial and also has special pricing for some travelers. Members of Delta Sky Miles frequent flyer program pay $79 or $99 a year depending on your status and top tier Sky Miles members get Clear for free.

Check your elite status perks. You may have line jumping perks if you have elite status with an airline as a mega frequent flier or are flying on an expensive business or first-class ticket. Some airlines provide dedicated lanes that are faster. For example, Southwest Airlines provides members of its Rapid Rewards loyalty program expedited security in some cities and for customers flying business class.

Pay extra. Some airlines give you the option of paying extra to get expedited security entry. It’s typically offered as a perk when you book but you can also ask for it when you check in. JetBlue, for example, offers Even More Speed, where passengers pay to get in an expedited queue (though not necessarily a dedicated lane). You can get it for $15 as an “extra” when booking or checking in. It is bundled into the price if you are paying more for an Even More Space seat on JetBlue. You can purchase a similar service called Premier Access on United for $15, though it can cost more than that depending on where you’re flying.

Download these apps. You can use apps to find out what you’re in for before you get to the airport. On the TSA’s MyTSAapp, security checkpoint times are reported in real time by travelers. Crowdsourcing is only as good as the reporters, of course. Check to see the number of people contributing, says McNutt. The TSA app also provides historical data on how busy an airport is on the date and time you travel, so make sure you’re looking at the right data for current wait times. There are also third-party apps that use crowdsourcing on wait times, including FlightSpeak and MiFlight.

Check airport information. Many airports report security line waiting times via Twitter or on their website and provide more precise information than the TSA. At Chicago O’Hare on Wednesday evening at 8 p.m., wait times were 11 to 20 minutes at Terminal 1 and less than 10 minutes at Terminals 2 and 3. Make sure the Twitter handle is verified (it will have a blue check next to their handle or say in the description that it’s the official site of the airport). You can also look up what airports are reporting for security-line wait times through iFly.com.

Look for an alternate route. You don’t have to go to the security line closest to your gate. Most major airports have several security checks points within a terminal. Ask when you check in if there is another line. If you have enough time, it may be worth the longer walk. Be careful if you go to another terminal seeking a shorter line. If the terminals aren’t connected, you may have to go through security again when you get to the one where your gate is located. 



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