Catching a Flight This Summer? Be Ready for Long Security Delays

Editors' pick: Originally published May 5, 2016.

Even the Transportation Security Administration is telling travelers a bitter truth: Be prepared for a long, miserable summer at security lines in airports. That is how bad the forecast is.

Experienced travelers have figured out the best ways to navigate security and, mainly, they are persuaded they know shortcuts through the clutter. And they are happy to share their tips.

But here is how treacherous matters are. Gary Rasicot, chief of operations at TSA, told the New York Times: "This is going to be a rough summer; there is no doubt about it."

Understand: grumpy travelers are flooding message boards with gripes about TSA lines that impose delays of an hour - sometimes more. Some travelers even have claimed they missed their flights because of the screening delays. It's ugly on the ground in airports.

Remember, too, TSA advice is to arrive at the airport two hours before domestic departures and three hours before international flights. Many travelers had been trimming those times - some said an hour was plenty, for all flights - but that was before Brussels. Airports now are on high alert and good practice today is to heed the TSA's advice.

The other big tip: if you fly often enroll in TSA's Pre program, which is for passengers who have already been screened by the agency and pass through expedited and generally faster lines. Cost is $85 for five years. Passengers who are in it swear it is worth every penny.

You don't want to splurge on the Pre program? You will need to know a range of savvy travel tactics to navigate this summer's hectic airports.

Tactic 1: See a long line, head to another screening lane. "At some airports, there are multiple checkpoints that lead to the very same gates," said Leslie Harvey, who blogs at Trips With Tykes. "Lines can vary considerably between these checkpoints as infrequent travelers don't know that they have multiple options. Charlotte Douglas Airport is one such example. If I find that the closest checkpoint is too busy, I simply walk a minute or two down to the next one."

Tactic 2: Carefully pick your travel days. "When booking your flight, avoid the busiest times," said Kristina Portillo, founder of BusinessTravelLife.com. "Even when it is not a holiday, airports are typically busy on Sundays, Monday mornings, Thursday evenings, and Fridays, due to weekend trips and business travelers. Flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday can make a difference in airport crowds."

Tactic 3: Pay attention to TSA's list of prohibited items and items that need special handling (liquids and laptops, for instance). Don't cause your own delays by flunking the initial screening.

Tactic 4: Think hard about checking luggage. Yes, fees are involved on most carriers - but many of the biggest security delays happen because a traveler forgot he had packed a knife, say. That knife is O.K. in checked baggage but it can trigger a huge security alert when it's in carry-on. Ditto brass knuckles, hammers, and a long list of stuff that is fine in checked baggage but you don't want to forgetfully carry a box of .357 magnum rounds in your pocket when you try to get through the TSA screening.

This sounds like a real hassle and it will only be worse because of how long the lines likely will be? You bet (see TSA Pre above).

But whatever you do, keep your mouth zipped when interacting with TSAs, because the alternative may be a quick trip to a nearby jail. Detroit lawyer William Maze said he has handled multiple cases where frustrated travelers got lippy with TSAs and one thing led to another and the traveler found himself under arrest. Maze said that "even though it is legal to be rude, these travelers are charged with disorderly conduct."

The charges may get tossed in court - but how much time and money has that traveler lost?

In other cases, the TSA may not initiate an arrest of the traveler - but he may put the traveler through just enough screening so that his flight is missed. And the airline may not choose to rebook that flight. That's more money lost.

The antidote: Keep your mouth shut, smile, and you won't get through security any faster - but at least you won't be subjected to unnecessary, extra delays.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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