How long is the airport security wait? We test the apps that tell us the time.
Airport security lines can behave like curly hair: One small change in the atmosphere and everything can go out of whack. Weather, holidays and most recently the partial government shutdown have turned a routine procedure into a panicky production.
The Transportation Security Administration and airlines advise domestic passengers to arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before their departure time, or even earlier during peak or atypical travel periods. Toward the end of the 35-day governmental crisis, some airports were reporting above-average wait times, such as Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (42 minutes) and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport (37 minutes).
Over the years, several companies and one federal agency have introduced apps that provide travelers with average security line wait times. The numbers are crowdsourced by other passengers or are based on historical data -- or are a mix of both. With another possible shutdown looming (the stopgap bill expires on Feb. 15) and spring break on the horizon, we decided to test the timekeepers at three airports. Here are our results.
In my initial online research, I discovered six apps that promised to deliver security line wait times. However, upon deeper investigation, three were operating, two appeared to have gone out of business and one (Kayak) dropped the feature.
MiFlight was as simple and straightforward as a Casio watch that has one job to do: relay the time. Type in the airport and select the terminal, and the wait time will pop up in large-print digits. Bonus eye candy: an attractive backdrop photo of the destination, such as the U.S. Capitol for Reagan National Airport, a beach sunset for Miami and a Mardi Gras reveler for New Orleans.
MyTSA, which is run by the agency, lists the archival wait times for every day of the week, plus one-hour increments from midnight to midnight. It also offers a handy histogram for procrastinators who are trying to reform their race-to-the-gate habit. The app also posts submissions from passengers at the airport. To stay relevant and accurate, the app will retain the times for only two hours.
App in the Air wants to be "your personal travel assistant," a helpful tool if you need someone (or thing) to organize your travel schedule but a bit intrusive if you just want time-management guidance. After allowing the app to access my reservations, I had to click on my flight and departure airport to see the wait times for check-in, passport and security. To peruse an airport out of sheer curiosity, I had to plug in a pretend flight.
A few hours before my early-evening departure last Thursday, I checked all three apps. The times for Reagan National were "less than 15 minutes" (MyTSA), "30 mins" (MiFlight) and "10 minutes" (App in the Air). Unfortunately, I had to disqualify the last entry because "10 minutes" was App in the Air's default mode. In an email, co-founder Nikita Kosholkin explained: "The 10 min mark is set by default when we don't have enough data for the particular line. The data you see is currently an average for the airport (hence, there is no timestamp), but we do have plans to show wait times linked with your departure time in future updates." (I later noodled around with other airports and discovered some useful results, such as a 23-minute wait at Dulles International Airport and 19 minutes at New York's JFK.)
At the airport, I opened the apps again. On MyTSA, one traveler had reported a wait of "one to 10 minutes." MiFlight had dropped down to 10 minutes. For this exercise, I joined the regular line instead of PreCheck. (MyTSA provides estimates for the trusted traveler queue; the others don't.) I started the stopwatch right after showing my boarding pass to the official at the entrance of the line and stopped it after collecting my bags on the other side. Total time: 12 minutes 15 seconds, not counting the bag check triggered by my container of mango. Before heading to my gate, I tried to report my wait time, but unfortunately I could not find the option on the screen. (Sharing is much easier on MiFlight. Scroll down for the timer, then press "Share Time.")
For additional testing, I roped in two other travelers, loaned to us by a colleague. Her husband was flying out of BWI on a Friday morning, the day the government ended the shutdown. The apps reported "standard wait times are typically 15-30 min" (MyTSA), "30 minutes" (MiFlight) and "10 minutes" (App in the Air). The actual wait time was 13 minutes. Her daughter departed from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on Sunday afternoon. The apps posted less than 15 minutes, 30 minutes and 10 minutes, respectively. She whizzed through security in 12 minutes.
Based on our sampling, MyTSA was the most accurate, especially when the times came from real-time travelers. The other apps could be useful if they were more transparent with their sources of information. In this era of busier skies, stronger storms and record-breaking shutdowns, stopwatches-on-the-ground are a better time gauge than historical data. So, passengers, help out your fellow travelers: Start your clocks and send in those minutes.