Huge lines at airport security can be a nuisance or a disaster, depending on what time you show up for your flight. To know what you’re up against, Upgraded Points conducted a study that looked at data on Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wait times at America’s 25 busiest airports in 2018 to determine the nation’s fastest and slowest security checkpoints.
According to the study, the nation’s airport with the slowest airport security wait time is Newark Liberty International (EWR), where the average time spent in line is 23.1 minutes. Show up on a Monday between 12 noon and 1 p.m., and you may get stuck in a 60-minute wait. The other airports in the bottom five included George Bush Intercontinental (IAH), Miami International (MIA), Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) and McCarran International (LAS).
The country’s fastest airport security line was Salt Lake City International (SLC), with an average wait time of 9.1 minutes. The study also noted that if you rolled into SLC on a Wednesday from 6 to 7 p.m., you would have an average wait time of only two minutes. Despite being one of the biggest airports in the United States, Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) came in second, with an average security wait of 10.5 minutes.
Why do wait times fluctuate so much? According to TSA press secretary Jenny Burke, it’s because no two airports are the same — even if they have the same TSA setups.
“There’s an adage, 'If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport,’ because the profile, the footprint, is different at all the checkpoints,” Burke says. “There are all different reasons for why lines might vary from airport to airport.”
Flight schedules can contribute to wait times, as can the nature of the airport. If one serves more business travelers, its lines will move quicker because passengers are accustomed to security practices, maybe even using TSA PreCheck or Global Entry to whisk them through. The opposite is true for airports who serve more leisure travelers.
“With the vacation airport, you’re talking potentially about families with multiple people who may or may not travel frequently,” Burke says.
Burke’s main takeaway for travelers who want to move through airport security as quickly as possible is to sign up for TSA PreCheck or U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Global Entry.
Her next tip is to make sure you completely unpack and repack your bags the night before you travel. Passengers often forget about contraband items like pocket knives or even firearms stored in luggage that will get confiscated.
If you’re unsure whether the items you’re traveling with will be confiscated, the TSA website has a well-stocked trove of travel tip posts to help get you through security faster, with info like “DON’T go through security with fashion accessories that resemble a weapon!” and “DO leave your fancy jewelry on!”
You can also send a tweet to the @AskTSA account for answers or just scroll through the numerous wild tweets others have sent inquiring about items like bull skulls.
“You’re missing out on some very interesting items if you don’t follow the Ask TSA account or the TSA Instagram,” Burke says.
For those traveling with special circumstances, medical conditions or disabilities, you can call the TSA Cares toll-free line at 855-787-2227 to request checkpoint assistance and get additional information on what to expect from the process.
Finally, Burke recommends simply being prepared for the basics if you don’t have TSA PreCheck, such as taking out your liquids and electronics and taking off your shoes. Consider what kind of shoes you’re wearing, as well — whether they’ll be simple to slip out of and back on, and even what kind of material they’re made of.
“Anything that’s extraneous, anything with metal on it, those items are going to alert and require additional screening,” Burke says. “If I am traveling for business and I’m wearing heels, oftentimes, a high heel shoe will have metal shaft in the heel. That’s something that would set off an alert for the screening process.”