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Electronic Explorer

Before You Fly, Wait a Minute (or More)

January 13, 2002|LAURA BLY

To anyone who has flown since Sept. 11, Travelocity's "Tips & Advice" section states the obvious: "For the foreseeable future, getting from the front door of the terminal to the plane will be even more time-consuming than it already was. Increased security means longer lines, which means you're going to need to get to the airport earlier."

But just how much earlier has proved confusing and constantly changing, and airlines, airports and online booking sites are struggling to address this but are adding to the confusion because the sites often do not agree.

Many major airports and most airlines advise passengers to arrive at least two hours before flight time for U.S. departures and three hours for international flights, but actual check-in times have varied.

As Orbitz ( notes in its consumer-friendly Flying Forecast, a few carriers have used Web check-in, self-service airport kiosks and new security lanes dedicated to first class and high-mileage frequent fliers to scale back recommended arrival times.

Northwest's site ( now advises passengers to get to the airport 75 minutes ahead of time for domestic flights, two hours for international.

The "Update for Travelers" section at Delta's site ( still recommends allowing at least two hours for check-in but notes that shuttle passengers flying from Boston, New York or Washington, D.C., can cut that process to one hour.

What's more, a growing number of airlines--among them Delta, Northwest, Continental (, Southwest (, United ( and US Airways ( started posting estimated wait times for specific airports on their Web sites. Whether that information translates to time savings for stressed-out travelers is debatable.

Continental passengers must click from "Customer Advisories" on the airline's home page to "What to Expect at the Airport" and then "Airport Processing Times" before they learn that "the average time required from entering an airport terminal within the U.S. to boarding our aircraft is approximately one hour."

Travelers are also advised to "review the approximate processing time for select airports that require more than one hour during peak traffic hours." When they do, they'll see a list of more than 50 airports with waits longer than an hour during "peak traffic hours," defined as 6:30 to 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, some airports have adopted their own guidelines, which may not jibe with the airlines'.

For example, a home page link to "current airport status" on Salt Lake City International's recently redesigned site ( notes that "arriving at the airport 90 minutes before your flight's scheduled departure is advisable; however, passengers may want to consult with their airline for more specific arrival times."

Delta, which has a hub in Salt Lake City, took a decidedly dimmer view Jan. 2, when its site advised Salt Lake passengers that during peak traffic times (7 to 11 a.m., 3 to 7 p.m.), they should count on 40 minutes for curbside check-in, four hours at the ticket counter and 30 minutes to clear security. (A spot check on Jan. 7 was more encouraging: an hour at the ticket counter and 45 minutes at security during peak times.)

One more thing, Delta adds: "Wait time information is regularly reviewed for accuracy; however, all times are approximates. Unanticipated wait times may occur on days or times other than those listed."

So what's a frazzled traveler to do?

Some are posting queries to message boards and newsgroups, a hit-or-miss process that can yield some daunting results.

One traveler, flying out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County for the first time in early January, got this tip from a fellow flier by posting to an airport forum on FlyerTalk ( "SNA [Orange County airport] in their infinite wisdom has not expanded their security checkpoint area.... If you have an early morning flight, get into the airport [about] 5:45 a.m. so you have plenty of time to go through security. The security time through is 25 to 55 minutes. (This is after you have checked in.)"

But others are simply steeling themselves for a long wait.


Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Laura Bly can be reached at

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