Why Does It Take Longer To Fly Out Of Austin's Airport Now Than Before The Pandemic?
The live music, restaurants and bars at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport are designed to entice people to spend a little extra time at the airport. These days, travelers may not have much of a choice.
Checking a bag, clearing TSA security and even grabbing a coffee and sandwich have become time-consuming enough that airport officials are now telling travelers to arrive 30 minutes earlier than they did in 2019, when the airport was breaking passenger volume records.
The new guidance recommends people show up at least two and a half hours before departure during peak travel times — 5 to 8 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. — and at least two hours during less busy times of day.
The typical waits involved with air travel are being aggravated by a shortage of employees and a surge in family leisure travelers less agile at navigating airport routines than the nimble business passengers who've been slower to return to the skies.
"This is the busiest it's been that I've seen in a long time," said Justin Lee, who was in line to check a bag early Tuesday morning. "This is kind of a little surprising."
Almost the same number of people are traveling in recent days as in 2019, a rebound from the worst of the pandemic when the airport's passenger numbers fell by more than 90%. But the slowdown in service dates back weeks, before passenger volumes were almost on par with pre-pandemic levels.
TSA Security Slowdown
The lines can be attributed in part to staffing shortages at TSA security, a challenge both the agency and the union representing its workers have acknowledged.
ABIA officials told the City of Austin's Airport Advisory Commission in mid-July that TSA wait times had improved since Memorial Day, after the agency had instituted mandatory overtime for employees. The agency has been meeting its goal of keeping lines for security screening under 30 minutes, airport officials said.
That's usually the case, but not always, according to publicly available TSA wait times logged by KUT since July 17. Wait times exceeded 30 minutes in the Barbara Jordan Terminal on at least six days. Almost every instance was in the early afternoon.
"We're working with TSA," the airport's Chief Operating Officer Ghizlane Badawi told airport commissioners. "They're facing the same issues as everybody, a shortage of staff."
She said the airport hired additional employees to help with lines at security screening and airport ticketing desks.
Screeners at ABIA must work at least one additional eight-hour shift per week, TSA said. Starting next week, mandatory overtime will be reduced to one extra shift every two weeks.
The union representing TSA employees argues mandatory overtime makes it harder to retain screeners.
"What about their family needs?" said Hydrick Thomas, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' Council 100, which represents nearly 46,000 TSA officers. "Now, you're going to mandate them to come in on one of their days off."
Thomas says TSA is one of the federal government's lowest paying agencies, with entry-level screeners starting at around $35,000 a year. He's lobbying Congress to adopt legislation that would grant TSA workers the same protections as most other federal employees.
"If the employees were getting paid decent wages, they wouldn't mind working every day," Thomas said.
The TSA said it's actively recruiting new employees with two rounds of interviews planned in Austin this month. But the agency says other factors are also slowing screeners.
Leisure travelers, whom the industry has to thank for the recent increase in business, tend to bring more luggage. Screeners have also reported an uptick in people trying to bring prohibited items through the security checkpoint — everything from Gatorade to guns.
"A lot of people who have not traveled in a long time tend to forget the very basic things of 3.4 ounces of liquids, no kinds of knives," TSA spokesperson Patricia Mancha said. "Every time you find a prohibited item, regardless of whether it be a firearm or a bottle of water, that requires additional screening ... and it impacts everyone behind you."
Airport officials plan in the coming months to add four TSA security screening lanes near the Southwest Airlines ticket counter. That will increase the total number of lanes at the airport to more than 20, officials said.
Airline curbside check-in and ticketing counters are also understaffed, according to Austin airport officials.
The airlines "kind of left their front-line staff in the lurch," said former airline executive Robert W. Mann, who is now an industry analyst.
He argued enhanced unemployment benefits, which have since expired in Texas, made airline wages less appealing. But Mann added that $25 billion in federal payroll assistance for U.S. airlines helped keep the industry aloft.
The people traveling today are different than the customer base the airline industry has aimed to cultivate over the last 20 years. Many aren't using self-service technology and are instead choosing to talk to in-person staff, which means longer lines.
"We have such a pent up demand for travel that people who never traveled before are suddenly traveling," Mann said. "A lot of them are completely unprepared to deal with the self-service environment that the airline would like you to deal with."
Most airlines operating out of ABIA did not respond to requests for comment on the delays. United Airlines referred KUT back to Austin airport officials. Southwest Airlines directed KUT to a page on its website advising Austin travelers show up two hours before departure.
Slower Food Service
Once passengers clear TSA security, they may encounter yet another line when trying to buy a slice of pizza or a bottle of water. The employee shortage among the three companies that run concessions at ABIA has become so severe that they've been poaching employees from each other, airport officials said.
Job fairs and hiring incentives are helping to bring in new employees. Two of the three concessionaires are vowing to reopen all stores by the end of August.
But even freshly trained recruits can take time to get up to speed. A local charity that picks up unsold food at the airport to distribute to nonprofits — from domestic abuse shelters to church food pantries — reported a drop in collections from airport concessionaires.
"The numbers right now, this month, have been lower than they were pre-pandemic," Keep Austin Fed Executive Director Lisa Barden said. "I think that's mostly a training issue rather than a lack of surplus food."
$85 To Skip The TSA Line For Five Years
The prospect of facing a long line at security has more travelers considering TSA PreCheck, an $85, five-year membership that lets people cruise through their own expedited security line with no need to remove shoes, belts, liquids or light jackets.
Enrolling takes about 5 minutes online or 10 minutes in person, and most people are approved in a few days with almost all cleared within two weeks, Mancha said.
For another $15, travelers can add Global Entry, which allows for faster processing through U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
More people are using PreCheck than ever. Eleven million people are currently enrolled in the program, surpassing the 10 million mark reached in early 2020 at the dawn of the pandemic. The TSA is still far short of an earlier goal of having 25 million travelers enrolled by 2019.
Airport Expansion Plans Forge Ahead
Airport leadership is planning an expansion it says should help relieve some of the pressure brought by the unrelenting economic growth of the Austin region.
The plans include boosting passenger screening capacity, adding new gates, growing the airline ticket counter area and replacing an aging checked bag screening system with a single, consolidated higher-capacity system.
The expansion is moving ahead despite the highly virulent delta variant of the coronavirus rampaging through unvaccinated populations, threatening another slowdown in air travel.
"Is the delta variant going to impact [travel volumes]? Most likely," Airport Advisory Commission Chair Eugene Sepulveda told KUT. "But I think what we've learned with the whole COVID lockdown is, as soon as circumstances allow, we have a pent up demand. I'm less likely to plan on postponing our capital improvement project now than I was when we first entered the COVID pandemic."