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Air travel this summer will be the worst: Here's how you can beat the lines

A record number of Americans are expected to fly this summer, but there’s one major problem: The airports aren’t ready.

Airlines for America, a trade group, predicts that U.S. airlines will carry a record 231 million passengers between June 1 and Aug. 31. That boils down to 2.5 million passengers every day, or 95,500 more passengers per day compared to last year.

Blame lower airfares on a rise in airline passengers. During the fourth quarter of 2015, the average price of an airline ticket in the U.S. dropped to $363, which was the lowest it's been since 2010, according to the Department of Transportation.

Lower airfares have continued into 2016, thanks to the low cost of fuel, which has been good news for airlines. In the first quarter of 2016, Airlines for America says that the 10 publicly traded U.S. airlines (Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Airlines, American, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, United and Virgin America) reported pre-tax earnings of $4.8 billion. This puts the profit margin at 13.2%, up from 11.2% in 2015.

And airlines are reinvesting that money in the customer experience, adding features like onboard Wi-Fi, increased entertainment options and new aircraft. In fact, airlines plan to use larger aircraft this summer, offering 2.78 million seats every day – 109,404 more seats than were available in the summer of 2015.

While airlines are sitting pretty, airports are expected to struggle under the barrage of passengers. Many of our airports are already operating at capacity, and have announced expansion plans to better manage the growing number of travelers. But these improvements are years away from being completed, and crowds in cities like Atlanta and Phoenix have kept passengers waiting in security lines for more than two hours.

Case in point: This week more than 450 passengers had to sleep at Chicago’s O’Hare airport after missing their flights due to long security lines. Airport officials are now advising passengers to show up three hours before their flights.

Advocacy groups are pushing for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to hire and train more staff to deal with the growing number of passengers. Airlines for America has even started a campaign around the hashtag #hatethewait where passengers can publicly share their ridiculous wait times to encourage the TSA to step up its game. To help, Congress has approved $34 million to be added to the TSA’s budget that will go toward hiring and training 800 new screening officers. The money will also be used to provide overtime for existing staff. Still, some worry that the changes won’t take effect in time for the summer rush. 

Hopefully some improvements will be made by the time peak summer travel comes, but in the event things don’t get better, here are some tips that will ensure you’re prepared for hellish security lines – and more importantly, never miss a flight. 

Before you book:

There’s really no excuse not to have TSA precheck by now. The service (which costs $85) lets you go through an expedited lane at the airport, and you don’t have to remove your shoes, laptop, or toiletries from your bag. More and more people are signing up for precheck, so the expedited lanes can still get semi-long depending on the airport, but the line still moves faster.

When you book:

If you have TSA precheck, be sure to enter your Known Traveler number when booking online. This will ensure that it appears on your boarding pass so that you can head straight to the security area when you arrive at the airport.  

Before leaving home:

Navigating the security maze actually starts before you leave home. On the day of your trip, go to the TSA’s website or use the TSA app, enter the name of your airport, and you can see the projected wait time for your security point (the app MiFlight does the same thing). You should still arrive early, giving yourself at least two hours to get through security, but this feature will give you a little heads up of what to expect.

At the airport:

Checking a bag adds so much time to your airport experience. Try your best to keep your belongings in a carry-on. This way you can bypass the check-in counter – assuming you checked in online beforehand – and head straight to security when you arrive at the airport.

In the security line:

Be strategic when you’re waiting. If you have a chance to pick the left or right lane, choose the left. It’s travel folklore that more people are right handed and tend to choose the right lane. Also, use the waiting time to organize yourself. Make sure your toiletries and laptop are easily accessible, your pockets are empty, and your shoes are untied. Don’t wait until you’re at the front of the line to get ready.

At your gate:

Nearly everyone traveling is going to have some kind of device that they need charged. To fight plug anxiety, make sure your phones, iPads, and computers are fully charged before you leave the house. If you want to make some new friends at your gate, bring a power strip to help others while guaranteeing you have a place to power up.  

Do you have questions about the TSA or airport delays? Email us at yfmoneymailbag@yahoo.com.