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.
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.
Mean security wait time at UK airports
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
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
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|
|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|
|Boston Logan International Airport||10.6||US|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|Newark Liberty International Airport||23.1||US|
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.
As a result, US airports security queues, are on average, 5 minutes slower than their UK counterparts.
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.
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.