Just How Early Can Departing Passengers Access Security?
For many passengers, deciding what time to arrive for their flight is a fine balance between avoiding a last-minute dash through the airport and not waiting around unnecessarily. As one of the main bottlenecks in any airport, going through security can have a big impact, and with passenger numbers this year expected to surge past 2019 levels, that is not likely to change anytime soon.
While each airport will have its own procedures, security generally opens two to three hours before the first departure of the day, and remains open until the last passenger has gone through. However, airline check-in desks may not open until two to three hours before departure, so those without a boarding pass will have to wait. This highlights the time savings and flexibility offered by checking in online and traveling only with carry-on luggage.
Here are some examples of airport security opening times from around the world:
Security Opening Time
San Francisco (SFO)
Terminal 1 – 0400, Terminal 2 – open 24/7
Checkpoints 2 and 9 – open 24/7, others vary between 04:00 and 05:00
Photo: Photo Spirit | Shutterstock
How much time to allow
When deciding what time to arrive at security, there are a number of factors to consider. Passengers may wish to arrive earlier to make use of the airport facilities, particularly those with access to an airport lounge. Passengers requiring special assistance on their journey through the airport will also need to arrive earlier, and are often told by airlines to arrive at least three hours prior to departure.
Security waiting times vary greatly depending on the time of day and time of year. First thing in the morning, when the airport’s based aircraft all depart in quick succession, often within minutes of each other, tend to be busier, as do peak holiday travel dates. Many hub airports experience significant peaks and troughs in passenger numbers throughout the day, depending on the banks of flight departures – Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Istanbul Airport (IST), home to Emirates and Turkish Airlines, respectively, are prime examples.
However, airports are aware of expected passenger numbers in advance, and will usually make allowances for these busier times by having more security staff on shift. Therefore, although the line may be longer, it could move quicker than at quieter times of day.
Photo: Daniela Collins | Shutterstock
The size of the airport is also something to consider – the length of time needed once through security to reach a departure gate at major hubs like London Heathrow Airport (LHR), for example, is likely to be longer than at regional airports such as Liverpool Airport (LPL).
In the US, passengers with TSA PreCheck can use dedicated security lines, often saving time. PreCheck is available to purchase at $78 for five years.
What do the airlines recommend?
Recommendations differ across airlines, although most tend to advise passengers to arrive at the airport two to three hours before departure, which should allow enough time to check in, if needed, and pass through security.
Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying
American Airlines, for example, says on its website that passengers should arrive at the airport at least three hours before their international flight, with check-in closing 60 minutes prior to departure. For the carrier’s domestic flights, check-in closes 45 minutes before departure. Similarly, Air France recommends two hours before domestic and European flights, and three hours before intercontinental flights.
One airline to give rather more specific instructions is British Airways. The oneworld alliance member states that security will close 35 minutes before departure, presumably owing to the size of its home at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and the time needed to access the gates, especially those located on satellites B and C.
Photo: London Heathrow Airport
The role of external factors
A number of issues have impacted the length of time needed to pass through the airport over recent years. Throughout the pandemic, travel restrictions and extra documentation checks meant that the time needed to process each passenger increased significantly. The well-documented staffing issues faced by the industry last summer, particularly at security, only exacerbated the problem.
However, now that COVID-related restrictions have mostly been lifted, and airports and airlines alike find themselves better prepared for peak travel seasons from a staffing perspective, the airport experience in 2023 will largely feel more normal.
Photo: Munich Airport
This leaves passengers facing the same dilemma – arrive too early and end up waiting around for hours, or risk missing your flight by arriving too late. As a general rule, getting to the airport three hours before international flights and two hours before domestic departures seems to provide a healthy balance. However, for those who like to live on the edge, it may still be possible to pass through security much later than that.
How long before your flight do you normally arrive at the airport? Do you have any tips for making the airport experience less stressful? Let us know in the comments below.
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