Thanksgiving air travel will reach record numbers, how to prepare

As we head into the busy holiday travel season, one question weighs heavy: Will the Transportation Security Administration be able to handle what is expected to be the busiest Thanksgiving of all time?

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security reported that the TSA failed an undercover inspection of their screening and security procedures — catching threats only 20% of the time. Shortly after, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) requested a “top-to-bottom” review of the TSA to close security gaps.

“In light of the recent test result reports, TSA should move immediately to address all holes, shortfalls and gaps in training procedures, technology, and the entire airport security process,” said Schumer.

At the same time, AAA estimates that 50.9 million people will journey at least 50 miles from home this Thanksgiving, up 3.3% from last year. Of that number, about 3.95 million travelers plan to fly, up 5% from last year.

With more travelers than ever, and the focus on the TSA to improve efficiency, flying through our nation’s airports is likely to be a frustrating experience for travelers this year. Nationwide, the TSA expects to screen about 2.4 million passengers per day. At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s busiest airport, the TSA is expecting to set a single day screening record of 97,000 passengers on Nov. 26, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

All of this means that passengers flying through U.S. cities must prepare for crowds at airports during the holiday season. Here are some tips on what to expect and how to navigate the lines this holiday season.

Travelers form a long security check line that is extended out of departure lounge at Los Angeles airport.

Get to the airport early

The TSA suggests that travelers get to their respective airports two hours before a scheduled departure. This time jumps up to three hours for international flights. Wait times will vary based on the time and day that you fly, but it’s better to play it safe than sorry when it comes to getting home for the holidays.

The truth about packing food

Security checkpoints are the place where travelers can expect the most delays while traveling. The key here is to pack efficiently to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible.

Many people will travel with food during the Thanksgiving holiday. But what does the TSA permit through the security checkpoint? The answer is, quite a bit. For starters, travelers are allowed to travel with an entire turkey in their carry-on or checked bag. The only caveat is that it can’t be alive.

Other items allowed in both your carry-on and checked bags include: fresh fruits, berries, nuts, solid cheeses, pies, cakes, and sandwiches.

Then there are items allowed in your checked bag, but are only permitted in your carry- on if certain restrictions are met. This includes creamy dips and spreads, gravy, sauces, salsa, salad dressing, honey, and hummus, all of which must contain less than 3.4 oz.

Ways to skip the line

By now, most travelers have heard about TSA Precheck, the program that lets pre-screened travelers experience shorter lines and less screening at airport security checkpoints. While increasing memberships has made TSA Precheck lines longer, they will still be shorter than the regular lines, especially during the holidays.

With Thanksgiving just a week away, it’s too late to reap the benefits of Precheck, as it can take two to three weeks to get approved. That said, it would be the perfect time to sign up for Christmas and New Year’s travel.

One service that can help you avoid crowds now is CLEAR, a program that allows passengers to skip long lines and head straight to TSA screening. With CLEAR, you sign up ahead of time, and register with your personal information and biometrics (a fingerprint and eye scan). After registration, you can use CLEAR immediately. Currently, CLEAR is available at airports in 19 cities including hubs like New York, San Francisco, Dallas and Minneapolis. The cost is $179 per year.

Brittany is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. 

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