When Denver Mayor Michael Hancock joined airport and airline executives to open a modern expansion on Concourse C last week, he extolled Denver International Airport in lofty terms as as a gem for travelers compared to many other airports.

But he didn’t have to wait in a security screening line that snaked around to the baggage claims, or even out the door.

On the next two mornings after he spoke, long lines greeted travelers booked on early flights Friday and Saturday. Lengthy waits at peak times are back after a slight reprieve during the winter months — and soon could get worse, especially for passengers who lack Precheck or another expected screening status.

“On a random Saturday morning in May, I just witnessed the longest security line in the history of security lines. It’s a line that stretches OUTSIDE the doors” of the terminal, sports broadcaster Vic Lombardi tweeted at 6:19 a.m. Saturday.

As DIA’s passenger traffic eclipses pre-pandemic levels for the first time, the airport is forecasting that summer travel will beat 2019’s record levels. The Transportation Security Administration, which runs DIA’s two main security checkpoints and a third one on the walkway to Concourse A, says it’s bringing in backup from a national staffing team later this week while it works to fill vacancies among local TSA officers. It also will continue to rely on overtime and other measures.

The TSA leaned on the floating national corps for help late last summer and fall, when DIA’s security waits last went haywire. Other changes made in the fall — and still in effect — included moving all Precheck lanes to the north Level 5 checkpoint and squeezing four additional lanes into the checkpoints, offsetting those that had been lost last summer due to encroaching construction.

Construction space crunch is a factor

But there’s only so much the TSA and DIA can do.

They’re constrained by limited space in the terminal amid a massive, $2.1 billion renovation that will increase screening capacity — just not soon enough. Larger replacements for the two main Level 5 checkpoints are planned on the north end of Level 6, with the first one expected to open by early 2024 and the second coming within a few years after that.

In the meantime, work on the first new checkpoint has closed off some of the space below that’s occupied by the existing north screening area. Initially that resulted in the loss of four screening lanes, but last fall’s changes added them back elsewhere.

“Due to the high travel volumes, there will be periods during the day — specifically in the early morning, late afternoon and even into the early evening — when the number of passengers who need to be screened exceeds the capacity of the checkpoint,” TSA regional spokeswoman Lorie Dankers wrote in an email. “That is what drives the security lines and wait times.

“TSA continues to ask travelers to arrive early and come prepared for the screening experience to allow for completion of every step of the travel process, from curb to gate.”

On a random Saturday morning in May, I just witnessed the longest security line in the history of security lines. It’s a line that stretches OUTSIDE the doors of @DENAirport.

For those without TSA, highly advise arriving at least three days before flight departure. pic.twitter.com/K302nbECDK

— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) May 7, 2022

Pandemic recovery is driving wait times

DIA officials once worried the recovery from pandemic dip in passenger traffic would take years. But buoyed by its airlines’ extensive connections through Denver and surges in leisure travel, the airport experienced among the fastest recoveries among U.S. airports. Last year, it ranked third in the world for passenger traffic.

Recent DIA figures show its traffic has been exceeding 2019 monthly levels for the first time — just slightly in February, and by 3% in March.

“Based on capacity scheduled by airlines and trends we monitor related to passenger traffic recovery, we expect summer 2022 to be busier than summer 2019,” DIA spokeswoman Stephanie Figueroa said. “July is typically our busiest month of the year, and we expect that to be the same this year. Total passenger volumes are likely to exceed 225,000 on our busiest days, typically early July to mid-August.”

How to navigate security

DIA’s security checkpoints now have a combined 32 screening lanes — the same number it had before the pandemic — but those are available only when TSA can staff them, Figueroa pointed out. Some travelers have noticed idled lanes at times a checkpoint was backed up.

Here is the current security setup:

South main checkpoint (Level 5, nearest to the hotel and A-Line platform): General screening only, plus lanes for Clear members.
North main checkpoint (Level 5): Screening for travelers with a TSA Precheck membership or airline premium-access status, with a “very limited number” of general screening lanes. Clear members who also have Precheck should use this checkpoint.
A-Bridge (at north end of Level 6): General screening only.

The north and A-Bridge checkpoints typically close in the evening, but south screening is open 24 hours a day.

The TSA’s Dankers says wait times have tended to spike the most on Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays, as weekend travelers go through DIA. In the last week or so, TSA data showed 71% of travelers had waited 15 minutes or less, she said.

Still, that means a large minority of people waited longer. And people with Precheck are more likely to make it through quickly.

Just after 7 a.m. Saturday, as the early crush at security was subsiding, the real-time wait indicator on DIA’s website, www.flydenver.com, showed waits of 35 minutes on the A-Bridge, 32 minutes at the south checkpoint and just 7 minutes at the north checkpoint.

“We continue to work closely to determine the best setup as possible and provide TSA assistance where possible,” Figueroa wrote in an email. “However, passengers should be prepared for longer security lines and are encouraged to arrive at DEN 2 hours before their boarding time.”

That guidance has changed slightly from busy pre-pandemic travel periods, when DIA generally advised passengers to get to the terminal two hours prior to their departure time.

Anyone flying out of DIA @DENAirport early this morning? @TSA Security wait times are no joke. South’s security line is practically wrapping around the entire building and North’s is moving at a snail’s pace with one lane open. #DIA #TSA #security #waiting pic.twitter.com/4bADvPg7d1

— Nicole Vanacore (@NicoleDVanacore) May 6, 2022

 

TSA efforts to boost staffing

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As it contends with short staffing, the TSA says it’s assigning officers and shifting staff as best it can to meet the demand on peak times and days.

“Starting later this week, we will be adding national staffing resources as we begin to build towards the peak sustained summer travel volumes,” Dankers said, though she added: “We would prefer to hire local residents to work as TSA officers at DEN.”

Pay starts at $24.23 an hour plus benefits, with $1,000 bonuses when officers start work and again on their first anniversary. Information about local recruiting events is available by texting “DEN” to 95495.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the TSA’s corps of employees available to provide extra staffing at crowded airports this summer has quadrupled in size. Nearly 1,000 workers have volunteered for the program, which temporarily transfers employees from less-crowded airports to others where they’re needed.

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