HEBRON, Ky. -- The summer travel season is in full swing, and officials at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport expect a double-digit increase in passenger volume during the three-month stretch — meaning travelers looking for a quick pass through security checkpoints could face some additional delays.
The Transportation Security Administration has been heavily faulted in particular in recent weeks over its inability to screen passengers more quickly. This spring, more than 70,000 American Airlines passengers missed flights due to “excessive wait times," a company executive said. Problems have been reported in Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, New York, Seattle, Denver and Chicago, among others.
However, local leaders say they haven't seen such issues at CVG, where wait times average around 15 minutes, airport spokeswoman Mindy Kershner said. The airport is in the midst of its summer season, which started around the end of May and runs through mid-August.
The cause for delays is varied. But fewer screeners are filtering an increased volume of travelers — TSA, for one, is projecting it will screen a near-record 740 million people at U.S. airports this year. Even weather can prolong the time it takes to get to the gate.
"I won't sugarcoat it; staffing is part of it," TSA spokesman Mark Howell said. "Part of it is infrastructure. Part of it is prohibited items, like people with bottles of water, knives, things like that. That means we have to re-screen them and their bag, effectively making them two passengers instead of one. That has an impact.
"But volume is really the key factor," he added. "Sometimes there's just so many people coming through at certain parts of the day, even if we staff the best we can, you're still going to have some lines."
The agency traditionally steers clear of "average wait times," Howell said. Instead they go by percentages. Still, the vast majority of travelers in Cincinnati clear TSA checkpoints in less than 20 minutes.
"There are a hundred things that can factor into wait times, and it can change quickly," he said. "I can say more than 90 percent of the passengers at CVG are waiting less than 15 minutes. And over Memorial Day weekend, 90-95 percent waited less than 15 minutes, too."
Kershner says they're projecting a 10-12 percent increase in passenger volume at CVG this year compared to the 2015 spring/summer. In April, traffic was up 18 percent year-over-year. It also saw Thanksgiving-like crowds during Memorial Day weekend. Thanksgiving is traditionally the heaviest travel period of the year.
The airport says it has bolstered offerings — it now hits 54 non-stop markets, after Frontier added cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia this spring and Allegiant added a much-anticipated route to Destin/Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. Combined with increased flight frequency, and use of larger aircraft, including from United, which added 126 additional seats to its Newark, N.J., schedule, as airlines phase out 50-seat regional jets, it was able to surpass its busiest day.
But despite the increases, it's business as usual. CVG sees its peak daily traffic on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays as well as Saturday mornings. Busiest times are 5-9:30 a.m., 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m.
"We’ve been fortunate that local TSA has been able to keep up with the passenger volume," Kershner said. "Wait times have not been an issue."
Nationally, the TSA is hiring 768 more employees, is allocating an extra $26 million for overtime pay, and Howell said they'll also increase use of K-9 units. There's no airport-by-airport breakdown of where those additional hires will land, although none is likely at CVG. He said the airport is "currently staffed at the allocated levels."
CVG is unique in that it uses a system called BlipTrack, which picks up Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals from passengers' cell phones. By logging when a passenger enters and exits the screening area, the airport can determine wait time. That information is displayed outside the checkpoint and online. CVG was the first airport in the U.S. to utilize such technology, although others, like New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, are now using similar methods.
Admittedly, it's not a "perfect system," Kershner said, though it "helps set passenger expectations and relieves anxiety associated with queue lines.
"The data provided helps CVG and TSA evaluate historical trends and, to some level, look at what future wait times may be so staffing can be reallocated," she said
But the best way to counter any potential checkpoint headaches? Officials urge arriving on time.
American Airlines says an hour and a half is sufficient for domestic travel and two hours for international, but CVG and TSA say the standard is still two hours before a domestic departure and three hours for international flights. Frontier, Allegiant, Delta and United airlines all concur.
"That's one of the things we've been saying forever, but we're really urging passengers to stick to that now," Howell said. "It looks like it's going to be a record–breaking summer travel season, and there's going to be volumes comparable to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. So if you're traveling this summer, you need to plan ahead."