Like many air travelers, Caitlin Ariens used to play it safe when she flew. She'd arrive at the airport two hours before departure to give herself enough time to check in and go through Transportation Security Administration screening. At this time of year, she might have added another half-hour, just in case she encountered a longer-than-expected line.
But that was before Ariens, a nurse recruiter for a hospital in Austin, Texas, discovered a smartphone app called WhatsBusy. It displays an estimated wait time for security at major airports, allowing her to gauge how long she'll have to wait almost down to the minute.
WhatsBusy is one of a handful of programs, sites and strategies that will ensure that your next trip doesn't inspire you to write a sequel to "The Terminal," the Tom Hanks movie about a man stranded at an airport. And who wants to do that during the busy holiday travel season?
Ariens's app, WhatsBusy, informed her of a short wait before a recent trip from Austin to Nashville, Tenn. "I used the extra 30 minutes I thought I needed to complete a work project, saving me both time and stress," she says.
WhatsBusy, which is also available as a website (whatsbusy.com), harnesses internal data from the TSA's systems to build an algorithm that forecasts wait times, according to Jordan Thaeler, the company's co-founder. He says that the TSA does a fairly good job of managing its lines, even during the holidays. "But they can get out of hand," he adds.
You can access the TSA's unfiltered data, plus read the agency's sanctioned tips, with its official app (http://www.tsa.gov/mobile). The TSA app uses wait time information reported by other air travelers. If you fly only a few times a year, the mobile app can be a useful way to access the latest information on the agency's prohibited items. The program also lists the location of PreCheck screening areas, which allow preapproved air travelers to shortcut the regular security line, and answers the TSA's most frequently asked questions.
The official app has a few weaknesses and plenty of critics. Users on Apple's iTunes store give it three out of a possible five stars, dinging it for what they call its imprecise data (wait times are listed in vague increments instead of actual minutes) and absence of certain domestic airports. For example, one user complained that Anchorage was missing from the airport list, adding, "It's self-serving PR and a total waste of taxpayer dollars."
Another app called TSAwait (http://www.taclogic.com/TSAwait.html) lets you review the TSA's wait-time data in a more elegant format, but it's based on older data supplied by the TSA before it switched to a crowd-sourced app. The publisher also produces a companion app called FAAwait, which alerts users to FAA air traffic delays and ground stops. Nancy Nally, a writer who lives in Palm Coast, Fla., uses both these apps to stay abreast of air travel problems. "I frequently know about flight delays before they are posted," she says.
A representative for the app's developer, Tactical Logic, says that the company believes there's a chance the TSA will begin publishing official wait-time data again soon and is leaving the TSAwait app on the market in the "admittedly slim" hope that this will happen.
But an app can take you only so far during the holidays. Unless you catch the red-eye or travel on the actual holiday -- two favorite strategies for avoiding lengthy wait times -- you'll probably end up in a long security line. That's not a problem for Sid Savara, a Honolulu-based software engineer who honed his air travel skills commuting to the mainland. His takeaway: The TSA favors the unprepared.
"Security always rewards the bad behavior of people who arrive late at the terminal, because they don't want people to miss their flight," he says. "I see poor planning by tourists all the time, who arrive at the airport at the last minute and are then given VIP treatment to skip to the front of the line."
So Savara quit planning.
"I stopped worrying about when I arrived at the airport," he says. "Instead of stressing out when I was running late, I just went straight to the TSA officer checking IDs and told them that my flight is leaving in 20 minutes. The agent instructed me to come to the front of the line."
During the upcoming holidays, the TSA will probably be pushing its new PreCheck program, which costs $85 for a five-year membership. There have already been reports that agents are prodding air travelers stuck in long lines to sign up for the program. The benefits of PreCheck include being able to use a preferred line, where you can leave your shoes, light outerwear and belt on, keep your laptop in its case and your bag of liquids and gels in your carry-on.
Thaeler, the WhatsBusy co-founder, says that he prefers Clear (http://www.clearme.com), a WhatsBusy partner that uses biometric data to give you faster access to a TSA security line. "It's a much more efficient alternative to PreCheck," he says, because it's smaller and has shorter lines. Perhaps a little too small; it's currently only in seven U.S. airports, including two on the East Coast: Orlando and Westchester County, N.Y.
If you're trying to avoid a long security line and potential delays during the holidays, chances are that a combination of smartphone applications and strategies will get you through the most unpleasant part of your flight -- your TSA screening -- as quickly as possible.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)
(c)2013 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.