UK airport security

Please Arrive at the Airport 6 Hours Before Your Flight to Clear Security

It has been a little different over the last few months.

Whilst the holiday you’ve been looking forward to since the start of the outbreak might not be going ahead this year, it will come around.

We’ll all be back flying soon. And so will the familiar, often stressful, journey from car to plane.

Wait to check-in. Wait to drop your bags. Wait until the person in front of you at security empties the backpack full of all their electronics (sorry!).

In this period of travel downtime, I decided to take a look at the best and worst performing airports for security waiting times in the UK and US. Perhaps it’ll change my decision on where to fly from once travel restrictions are lifted.

Methodology

Which? asked asked 4,499 passengers to provide an estimated wait time for security on their most recent visit to the airport in their recent annual airport survey (end of 2019). Note: this survey was conducted before any COVID-19 restrictions were put in place.

The passenger numbers from each UK airport are sourced from CAA figures published for 2018, the latest full year dataset available at the time of writing. Note, the numbers are reported per airport. I could not find individual terminal data as is reported in the waiting time data. Therefore to perform my analysis I simply divided airport passenger number by number of terminals at the airport. Clearly this is not perfect.

For US airport data, I used data from Upgraded Points, who compiled wait time data directly from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) They collected data from late Spring for every hour at each airport to calculate overall averages.

Results

Mean security wait time at UK airports
Mean security wait time at UK airports

Download chart.

This one’s personal. I used to travel to Belfast monthly. I don’t miss the queues.

Belfast International is by-far-and away the worst performing airport for security waiting times, taking on average over 22 minutes  — over 5 minutes longer than any other airport considered.

Compare that with Southend or Southampton, the latter of which I used to fly to and from Belfast coincidently, where queuing can regularly take less than 5 minutes.

Mean security wait (mins) 2019 vs UK airport size

Mean security wait versus airport size

Download chart.

Gatwick and Heathrow have the lowest average security queue times for large UK airports. They are also the only two airports in the UK whose queue targets are set externally – by the Civil Aviation Authority.

They hit their queue targets, which are to get 99% of flyers through security in less than 10 minutes (Heathrow) and 98% in less than 15 minutes (Gatwick).

For a long time, my personal hypothesis was that smaller airports would have slower security primarily due to the fact they often cater for low-cost airlines, and thus people who might not travel as regularly.

How wrong I was.

In fact, larger airports are about 2 minutes slower. When I think more deeply about this, it makes perfect sense. Larger airport, more passengers, slower security queues.

Mean security wait (mins) 2019 vs UK airport passenger number

Number of passengers to add 1 minute to security wait times at UK airports (2019)

Download chart.

Comparing wait times to the number of passengers travelling gives us a better picture of how efficient security at each airport is.

Every 2.68 million passengers adds about a minute to the security waiting times at Gatwick South terminal, making it the most efficient airport considered. The North terminal at Gatwick doesn’t fare much worse with every 2.69 million passengers adding an extra minute.

Compare that to Bournemouth where every 88,000 passengers adds a minute to the security wait times.

Comparing to US airports

Airport Mean security wait (mins) 2019 Country
Southend 5.2 UK
Southampton 5.2 UK
Exeter 6.9 UK
Cardiff 7.1 UK
London City 7.5 UK
Bournemouth 7.7 UK
Newcastle 8.1 UK
Bristol 8.5 UK
Heathrow Terminal 5 8.6 UK
Gatwick South Terminal 8.6 UK
Gatwick North Terminal 8.7 UK
Salt Lake International Airport 9.1 US
Heathrow Terminal 4 9.4 UK
Heathrow Terminal 2 9.6 UK
Liverpool (John Lennon) 10.1 UK
Heathrow Terminal 3 10.3 UK
Dulles International Airport 10.5 US
Edinburgh 10.5 UK
Boston Logan International Airport 10.6 US
Leeds Bradford 10.6 UK
Birmingham 10.6 UK
Luton 11.7 UK
Glasgow International 12.2 UK
East Midlands 12.7 UK
Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport 13 US
Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport 13.2 US
Charlotte Douglas International Airport 13.2 US
Philadelphia International Airport 13.3 US
Stanstead 13.7 UK
Denver International Airport 13.8 US
Los Angeles International Airport 14.2 US
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport 14.3 US
Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport 14.7 US
Orlando International Airport 14.9 US
Chicago O’Hare International Airport 15 US
San Diego International Airport 15.5 US
Manchester Terminal 2 15.5 UK
Manchester Terminal 3 15.5 UK
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport 15.9 US
San Francisco International Airport 16 US
John F. Kennedy International Airport 16 US
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport 16.3 US
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport 16.9 US
LaGuardia Airport 17 US
Manchester Terminal 1 17 UK
McCarran International Airport 17.3 US
Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport 18.2 US
Miami International Airport 19.6 US
Houston Airport System 19.8 US
Belfast International 22.3 UK
Newark Liberty International Airport 23.1 US

Full table.

The best performing airports based on security wait times are all in the UK. Salt Lake International Airport is the best performing airport in the US (9.1 mins).

The worst airport, Newark Liberty International Airport in New York where average security wait times are 23.1 minutes — about one minute slower than Belfast International.

4 of the 5 worst performing airports are all in the US.

US vs UK airports average security wait times 2019

Download chart.

As a result, US airports security queues, are on average, 5 minutes slower than their UK counterparts.

Improvements

The UK figures are based on estimates. Which? collected the data by asking 4,499 passengers to provide an estimated wait time for security on their most recent visit to the airport in our recent annual airport survey.

This is far from accurate. The analysis would be much improved if I was able to use the actual figures similar to the way they are reported by the TSA in the US, although I could not find anywhere where UK airports reported these numbers.

tl;dr

Belfast International is by-far-and away the worst performing UK airport for security waiting times, taking on average over 22 minutes  — over 5 minutes longer than any other airport considered.

In the US it’s Newark Liberty International Airport in New York, where security queues are a little over 23 minutes on average.

Footnotes

  1. Data sources + data used in this post.
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