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