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Get ready for the busiest Memorial Day weekend ever at Austin's airport

A look at the arrivals board at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is expecting its busiest Memorial Day weekend ever.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is expecting the busiest Memorial Day weekend ever as daily passenger volumes flirt with all-time highs.

The busiest day on record at ABIA is Oct. 25, 2021 — the Monday after the United States Grand Prix — when TSA screened 35,298 departing passengers.

"Whether or not we'll have a new record for the single busiest day this Memorial Day weekend is a little too soon to tell," ABIA spokesperson Sam Haynes said. "But we are expecting a couple, at least, 30,000-plus days."

Austin's Department of Aviation was projecting some 33,000 passengers would pass through TSA security today. The estimates, generated by the TSA, are based on scheduled flights and fluctuate as the travel day approaches.

Crowds of passengers, some wearing protective face masks, line up before passing through a TSA security check point within the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport main terminal
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
The airport is busier because there are 30% more seats on planes out of Austin this month compared to May 2019, the last record-breaking year for passenger volumes at ABIA.

Fears of long lines at airport counters and security have airport officials recommending people show up at least two-and-a-half hours before boarding, which can be three hours or more before departure.

"We're trying to account for unplanned staffing shortages," Haynes said. "We can't anticipate when an airline ticket counter might be understaffed or when TSA might be understaffed. Those are the times when we're seeing those really long lines."

Sometimes, like Thursday morning, lines are smooth and people who show up early wind up waiting for hours at their departure gate.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske told Congress last week that the agency was increasing the number of temporary TSA officers at ABIA from 50 to 61 in anticipation of the Memorial Day weekend. Those officers from the TSA's National Deployment Force would be in addition to TSA staff already stationed in Austin.

The announcement was met with criticism from Congressman Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat whose district includes the airport. He wrote Pekoske to demand more agents.

"The situation in the Austin airport — both with new, incredibly long arrival recommendations, and with the continual delays of passenger screening until lines run out of the airport — is untenable and unacceptable," Doggett said in a news release coinciding with his letter last week to Pekoske.

A TSA security checkpoint at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
The TSA sent an additional 11 temporary officers to ABIA in anticipation of the crowds over Memorial Day weekend.

A website that showed current TSA checkpoint wait times has been down since last week. New technology to improve wait times doesn't work with the old website, ABIA staff say.

The city's Department of Aviation, which runs the airport, had no estimate on when the site would be restored. A new contract with a vendor would first have to approved by the Austin City Council. That council vote has not been scheduled.

Meanwhile, some travelers look to skip the TSA drama by paying for one or two expedited screening programs. Both are designed to complement each other.

TSA PreCheck, which costs $85 for five years, includes access to a priority line for security screening. Travelers do not have to remove their shoes, belts, light jackets or take their laptops out of their bags.

Crowds of passengers, some wearing protective face masks, line up before passing through a TSA security check point. A TSA PreCheck sign is in the foreground.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Passengers with TSA PreCheck have access to an expedited security line.

CLEAR, which costs $189 for 12 months, also gives passengers access to an expedited TSA line. It uses their eyes or fingerprints for identification.

The number of people using the CLEAR lane at Austin's airport is up 80% in the last month compared to the same time in 2019, the company's executive vice president, Kasra Moshkani, said.

But when the airport is busy and TSA is backed up, even CLEAR's wait times take a hit.

"As the volume has increased, you can still expect a 5-to-7-minute wait with CLEAR, versus in the ballpark of 45 minutes without CLEAR," Moshkani said. "If you focus on really the most busy, the peak times at the airport, it can take up to 15, 20 minutes max versus 90 minutes plus without CLEAR."

The airport is busier because there are 30% more seats on planes out of Austin this month than May 2019, the same year ABIA reached an all-time passenger record of 17.3 million. This year, the estimate is 22 million passengers.

A Spirit Airlines flight departs from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Spirit had planned to start new service from Austin to Monterrey International Airport in June, but that's been delayed till October.

The newest additions to ABIA's departures board include Virgin Atlantic's nonstop route to London Heathrow. The 10-hour flight runs four times a week.

Across the Atlantic, Virgin is trying to lure UK residents to Austin by casting the city as "Texas' chilled-out, eccentric capital, favoured as much by hotshot music-industry execs and film stars as by aspiring artists."

A screenshot from a Virgin Atlantic website marketing Austin to UK residents.
Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic is trying to lure UK residents on its new non-stop flight from London to Austin. Marketing material includes the promise of "BBQ like no other" with a picture of steaks being grilled. Elsewhere on the page, travelers are encouraged to "try Barton Springs just outside the city."

On Thursday, the ultra-low-cost airline Sun Country was scheduled to begin twice-weekly service from Austin to Cancun.

But the biggest players at ABIA remain Southwest and American. Almost two-thirds of people flying out of Austin are booked on one of those airlines.

If you found this reporting valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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