Got an early flight from RDU? Expect to wait in a long line

It’s still dark at 5 a.m., and the traffic on Interstate 40 near Raleigh-Durham International Airport is just a trickle compared to the rush of commuters that will fill the highway in a couple of hours.

But inside RDU’s Terminal 2, the line of people waiting to go through TSA security screening has already spilled out of the checkpoint area and begun to snake around the great hall where airlines have their ticketing and check-in counters. By 6 a.m., the line will extend around the entire perimeter until the end is just a few yards from the front.

This is not the RDU most people know. Travelers might expect long lines in places like Atlanta or New York, but the wait to get through the security checkpoints at RDU is not something people usually worry about, except perhaps at special times such as holidays.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Noah Wilder, who grew up in Raleigh and now lives in northeast Ohio where he was flying. Wilder and his traveling companion Taylor Edwards had arrived two hours early for a 6:50 a.m. flight and were surprised to find the TSA line looping around the terminal. “I’ve flown hundreds of times, and I’ve never seen it wrapped around like this.”

This was Wednesday. Some people say Mondays or Fridays are worse, but RDU officials say every weekday between 5 and 7 a.m. is the airport’s busiest time.

Air traffic in and out of RDU has been growing for years, and it ticks up even more in the summer as people head out on vacations. The growth would be more manageable if it were spread throughout the day, but mornings are a popular departure time, with travelers seeking to get to business meetings or make connecting flights in other cities. A quarter of the daily departures from RDU are scheduled to leave by 8 a.m., resulting in lines throughout the airport for everything from coffee to baggage drop.

Terminal 2 is by far the largest at RDU, with 9 of the 10 airlines and 36 of the 41 gates. Transportation Security Administration agents screened 5,384 passengers at the terminal’s single checkpoint between 5 and 8 a.m. Wednesday, according to spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.

TSA measures wait times at its checkpoints and insists they’re not as bad as the length of the line makes it seem. Koshetz says the longest anyone had to wait to get through security at Terminal 2 on Wednesday morning was 28 minutes. Overall at RDU, from May 1 to June 12, Koshetz said 98.7 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes and 87.3 percent waited less than 15.

The queuing area for the checkpoint is sufficient to hold the lines most of the day, but not in the morning. That spillover “gives the impression there will be an extensive wait time,” Koshetz said. “However, that single-file line moves quickly.”

Not quickly enough for some passengers, particularly those used to spending only a few minutes at security.

“I was expecting to walk straight in,” said Jay Miller of Raleigh as he joined the end of the TSA line at about 5:15 Wednesday morning. “Last time I saw this Obama was in town.”

Miller was pretty sure he was going to miss his flight to Washington. Boarding began in 10 minutes, and there were still hundreds of people in front of him waiting to be screened.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’ll figure that out when I get through security.”

Record number of passengers

The crowds are partly a result of the airport’s success in luring new airlines and new flights. Frontier Airlines added flights to eight destinations this spring, on top of 18 new ones last year, while last month Spirit Airlines began flying from RDU, offering eight daily nonstops to seven cities. Older, more established airlines such as Delta and American have also added flights or switched to bigger planes on existing ones.

A record 12.8 million people flew in and out of RDU last year, and the airport is on pace to set another record this year. Passenger screenings at RDU increased 39 percent from 2014 to last year, according to Michael Landguth, the airport’s president and CEO, and continue to climb as well.

In response to the growth, the airport built and opened two new security lanes in Terminal 2 this spring, bringing the total to 12. The airport also plans to revive four dormant gates in Terminal 1 and move three airlines — Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit — there by next spring.

A police officer directs passengers to the end of a security line that stretches around the entire perimeter of the Terminal 2 concourse at Raleigh Durham International Airport at around 6 a.m. on Thursday, June 13, 2019. The crowds are a result of the airport’s success in luring new airlines and new flights. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

More immediately, RDU has set up movable stanchions to try to give the TSA line some definition when it overflows into the ticketing area and will soon hire two part-time employees to help with queuing and answer questions, said spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco. RDU is exploring other ways for letting travelers know how long it will take to get through security, such as publishing times online the way the airport’s website now shows the available capacity in its parking decks and lots.

For now, TSA officers and airport police and other employees direct people to the back of the line and try to keep it from mingling with the queues for the ticket counters.

“This line is for American bag check,” a police officer shouted at one point Wednesday morning, as the two lines threatened to merge. Then glancing toward the TSA line that extended around another ticket counter out of sight she muttered under her breath, “Good Lord.”

Jeremy Oates, who was headed home to Colorado, flies through RDU regularly and says the line was just as long a month ago. A frequent business traveler, Oates said other airports don’t have such a maze forming outside their security checkpoints.

“Seems like it’s a poorly designed setup,” he said.

The confusion and uncertainty about getting through in time to make a flight is evident on the faces of many standing in line. Most passengers seem surprised, particularly at this hour. With much of the Triangle still asleep or just stirring for the day, many passengers who arrive at or before dawn expect to get a jump on everyone else and have RDU to themselves.

Jennifer Rigdon wondered how early she’d have to get to the airport for a 7 a.m. flight to Charlotte, the first leg of a trip home to Mississippi.

“They said two hours,” Rigdon said. “I thought that was ridiculous,” figuring the airport would be pretty empty at 5 a.m. She was glad she heeded the advice.

Here’s what you can do to make getting through security less stressful:

Airlines, airports and the TSA all recommend getting to the airport two hours early, or three hours for an international flight. Koshetz of the TSA said it’s smarter to consider that two hours ahead of the boarding time listed on the ticket, since airlines can begin that process 30 to 45 minutes before the scheduled departure time.

If you want to use a paper boarding pass, print it out before you leave for the airport, to save one step in the terminal. Also consider checking bags at the curb, which could avoid a line inside.

Sign up for TSA’s PreCheck program, which screens you in advance and puts you in a database that allows you to go through a different lane with a shorter line and faster screening process. The line for PreCheck passengers on Wednesday morning did not spill out of the checkpoint area. For information about PreCheck, go to www.tsa.gov/precheck.

Know what not to bring through a security checkpoint. When TSA agents find scissors or a hammer in your bag, it slows down the screening process for everyone. For a list of items you can and cannot bring on an airplane, go to www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening and click on “What can I bring?”

Consider a later flight. Early mornings are by far the busiest time at RDU, and by 8 a.m., the lines to get through the checkpoint at Terminal 2 have largely dissipated.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.