Denver International Airport is bracing for the crush of Thanksgiving holiday travelers in the next two weeks, posing one of the biggest tests since the pandemic began for its often-congested security checkpoints and parking lots.
Passengers, for their part, should pack two extra items: Preparation and patience.
As they head to the security checkpoints, they can expect screening operations that Transportation Security Administration officials say are better-staffed and more efficient than they were a year ago — yet still struggle, they acknowledge, to handle the heaviest crowds. DIA anticipates having enough parking, but it’s possible that travelers who prefer the close-in garages or economy lots will have to settle for a satellite shuttle lot or seek out one of the private off-site lots.
Better yet, they can avoid parking stress by taking the Regional Transportation District’s A-Line train or finding another non-driving option.
DIA began the year as the third-busiest airport in the world. It’s recovered quickly from the pandemic drop-off in air travel and pivoted back to growth mode, opening three major gate expansions on its concourses in recent months. In terms of passenger traffic, DIA is largely back on track compared to pre-pandemic years, with total arriving and departing passengers this year trailing 2019 totals by just 1.2% through September.
But the pace has been accelerating, with September’s monthly passenger total, nearly 6.3 million, up 5.6% over September 2019.
“We anticipate 2019-level numbers or greater than that” around Thanksgiving, DIA spokeswoman Alex Renteria said, “because people are traveling more than ever.”
Passengers long have complained about DIA’s security waits. While the airport’s ongoing $2.1 billion terminal renovation is moving into phases that will add two new checkpoints with much greater capacity — the first is set to open by early 2024 — it must make do, for now, with its three existing cramped screening spaces.
Coming after the holidays, DIA has plans to squeeze in four new screening lanes near the south main checkpoint, in an offset configuration. To make room, Renteria said, crews need to remove one of two sets of escalators in the area.
But those new lanes are targeted to open in the spring, a far-off prospect as officials contend with the coming holiday crowds.
Staffing shortages improve for TSA and shuttle contractor
Airport CEO Phil Washington publicly expressed some worry in recent weeks, given the long-standing staffing shortages faced by DIA’s parking contractor and the TSA.
“We need to figure out how we’re going to staff the outlying lots,” Washington told a City Council committee during a late October presentation.
But Renteria said Thursday that the concern is fading, with DIA shuttle contractor ABM Parking Services’ driver shortage now down to about 10. That’s a big improvement from its 45-driver shortage last fall, which kept DIA from reopening the Pikes Peak shuttle lot for months.
Renteria expressed confidence that over Thanksgiving, ABM would be able to keep shuttles running often to the $8-a-day Pikes Peak lot and the overflow Mt. Elbert shuttle lot, if it’s needed. Each has about 8,000 spaces.
As for the TSA, late last month, Washington cited a local shortage of “something like 100” agents to the council. TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers told The Post on Tuesday that his figure was outdated and didn’t reflect a spate of hiring this fall, including at a recent hiring event.
Vacancies now are running “closer to 20,” she said, though the TSA still has been relying on temporary staffing from other airports to keep as many screening lanes open as possible at DIA’s busiest times — especially Thursdays through Sundays.
“We have officers from the national staffing corps who are here,” she said, but it could be in a position to wind down the arrangement soon. “We are thinking that by Thanksgiving, we’ll have enough local officers that we won’t need to keep them on site.”
Know where to go — and give yourself time
While DIA-specific travel projections aren’t yet available, the TSA projects that Thanksgiving-related air travel will begin spiking as early as Thursday, a week before the Nov. 24 holiday, and will last through early the following week.
The busiest days are likely to be just before Thanksgiving and on Nov. 27, the Sunday after, which is projected to be the highest-volume day. More flexible remote-work policies may prompt some people to start trips earlier or return later than in past years, Dankers said.
DIA’s standard guidance is for passengers to arrive two hours prior to their flight’s boarding time — not the departure time — to give themselves enough cushion.
“We’re getting to that time of the year when we have a lot of travelers who maybe haven’t been on a plane or come through security for the last several months — or even the last couple of years, because of the pandemic,” Dankers said. There also will be more families navigating security with children. “So it’s time to refresh.”
DIA’s security setup has undergone major changes in the last year. As a general rule, the south main checkpoint on Level 5 (nearest to the Westin DIA Hotel and the transit center) is for standard screening. So is the A-Bridge checkpoint, accessible on Level 6 at the north end, connecting to Concourse A.
Passengers who have a PreCheck membership or an airline premium-access status should head to the north main checkpoint on Level 5, which is largely reserved for those groups. That checkpoint closes at 7:45 p.m. each day, leaving the south checkpoint as the only overnight option for everyone.
“That’s my No. 1 recommendation for anybody — get PreCheck at least,” said Jeff Price, an aviation security expert who is a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The TSA this month reduced the enrollment fee for its expedited-screening program, which requires an in-person appointment at a TSA office, from $85 to $78 for a five-year membership. While it’s not a guarantee of a short line, with even PreCheck waits dragging out in the pre-dawn morning hours, it’s a good bet.
DIA’s website, www.flydenver.com, displays wait-time estimates for each checkpoint, along with parking availability in the garages and lots. The west terminal garage filled up midway through last week, and full lots are likely to become more common during the holidays. Signs on Peña Boulevard also have parking-availability indicators.
Another time-saver is DIA’s free remote bag check, available for several major airlines between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the airport’s transit center near the A-Line platform. A drive-through bag drop is stationed near the entrance to the Pikes Peak lot on East 75th Avenue.
Security lines are moving faster lately
DIA’s regular checkpoint surge patterns — when intimidatingly long lines wrap back into the baggage claims — will still come into play in coming weeks.
Those are driven by the airlines’ flight schedules, which tend to induce the most checkpoint congestion from 5-10 a.m. and 1-4 p.m., Renteria said. Busy Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays often bring headaches at other times, too. The TSA bases its staffing on upcoming flight schedules and traffic forecasts, though weather and unexpected changes can catch the agency off guard.
That doesn’t mean the security lines are always bad — sometimes, passengers breeze through. In recent months, DIA travelers have reported that even the worst lines have tended to move more quickly than expected. That’s meant closer to 30 minutes or so, versus the nightmare 90-minute scenarios from earlier this year and last fall.
But TSA agents interviewed last week said planning ahead, including allotting time for a longer wait and checking TSA’s website to see what’s prohibited in carry-on luggage, will make for a less stressful experience.
At busy times, the screening agents try to keep things moving efficiently, supervisor Jeff Kay said, but “you can’t rush yourself in the profession we’re in.”
“We preach to our workforce that it is one passenger, one bag at a time,” he said on Tuesday afternoon, when security traffic was light. “And we try to preach that message simply because we know what our job is — and that’s ultimately to make sure that passengers are coming through safely, they’re getting on their planes and they’re arriving safely to whatever their destination is.”
As it continues to staff up, the TSA is having another hiring fair Saturday, Nov. 19 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at its Aurora office, 3855 Lewiston St. TSA agent jobs start at $50,560 a year, or $24.23 an hour for part-time workers, and it’s paying $5,000 in hiring incentives over the first year.
Price, the aviation security expert, said DIA and the TSA were grappling with the security challenges about as best as they could, making some proactive moves. Other airports built prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also have struggled to expand their checkpoints to meet post-9/11 screening demands, and DIA’s passenger traffic has grown significantly since then.
Price, who teaches in MSU’s Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science, worked as DIA’s assistant security director from its opening in 1995 to 1998.
“I think they’re making the best use of the space that they can right now, with respect to the construction issues,” he said. “The best the traveler can do is get there early.”
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