Travel Articles by David Bear
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Tips for avoiding busiest times at airport

08-15-2004

 

A flurry of responses followed my last column, when I reported on the huge jams of passengers that can back up at Pittsburgh International Airport security checkpoints and US Airways ticket counters during the busiest times of the day. All but one had similar experiences to relate. Apparently, many travelers have been caught by this problem.

From American Airlines 4114, which is scheduled to take off for Chicago at 6:17 a.m., to US Airways 1172, which departs for Buffalo at 10:30 p.m., some 431 flights leave Pittsburgh International on a given weekday. Of that number, 373 fly under the wings of US Airways, with the rest divided up by nine other airlines.

It should come as no surprise, that those 431 flights are not evenly spaced throughout the 16 hours of the airport's operating day. There are blocks of time during the day when a plane is taking off every 36 seconds on average, and other times when there are no departures at all for nearly an hour.

Not surprisingly, long lines can back up at both the US Airways check-in counters and the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints in peak periods, as hundreds of travelers try to clear the preflight hurdles at the same time.

This is not intended to be a criticism of airline or airport procedures as much as a caution to travelers. Knowing how long it is likely to take you get from your car to your flight is largely a consequence of when that flight is scheduled.

With this reality in mind, here's a quick rundown of all the flights scheduled to depart on a given weekday.

Only seven flights are scheduled to depart before 7 a.m. Interestingly, all are by carriers other than US Airways, as are the next five flights of the day.

In fact, the first US Airways flight doesn't come until 7:41 a.m., but then things get very busy, with 102 departures over the next two hours.

That rush is followed by an hour-and-a-half lull, during which there are only 11 departures. At 11:25, things pick up again, with 99 flights spread over the next 2 1/2 hours, but not evenly. For example, 30 flights are scheduled in the 30 minutes between 11:25 to 11:55, for an average of one every minute. However, this spurt doesn't qualify as the busiest part of the day.

The afternoon rush hour gears up at 3 p.m., and by the time it's over, at 5:55 p.m., 109 flights will have taken to the air. By comparison, the dinner hour is absolutely leisurely, with only 13 flights scheduled between 6 and 8 p.m.

There's a flurry of 37 departures from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., and then none at all for 60 minutes after that.

At 10 p.m. you might think things would be settling down for the night. You'd be wrong. In fact, the next 30 minutes are the busiest time of day at the airport. There are 50 departures, scheduled in blocks every five minutes, for an average of one flight every 36 seconds.

Of course, these numbers fluctuate slightly day to day, as not all flights are operated daily.

The number of daily flights will also plunge dramatically on Nov. 7, when Pittsburgh's dominant carrier introduces its new Hub-Lite schedule. As the Post-Gazette reported last week, beleaguered US Airways plans to trim its present operating schedule by nearly 40 percent, to 240 daily departures, eliminating nonstop service to 20 markets it now serves, including its two European destinations, London and Frankfurt.

A flight reduction on that scale will have dramatic impact on daily traffic patterns to and through the airport. Life for many travelers is going to be very different.

Fewer departures will likely mean fewer passengers, but even that reduction won't necessarily eliminate traffic jams throughout the day, especially if the remaining flights are concentrated during the most popular time periods. Details on the revised schedules will be made public in early September.

This is not to suggest that US Airways or any carrier should schedule its departures at bad times simply to even out the flow of traffic, but the public should also be aware of what sort of bottlenecks they're likely to encounter once they get to the airport and make their plans accordingly.

This much is certain. If your flight is scheduled to depart during those peak hours (7:30 to 10 a.m.; 11:25 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 3 to 6 p.m.; 8 to 9 p.m; and after 10 p.m.) you should get to the airport early. How early?

Clearing TSA security can take 60 minutes or more at the busiest times, and checking in and checking bags at US Airways can add 30 to 45 minutes to that. Failing to get to the airport early enough can result in considerable anxiety and even a missed flight.

On the other hand, if you're going to be departing at one of the less busy hours, it may not be necessary to get to the airport quite as early, unless you have special needs or reservations that need to be adjusted.

While there will be fewer flight options available in coming months, passengers can still try to avoid the worst of traffic jams by opting for departures during the less busy periods.

Perhaps if enough people make that choice, carriers will respond to that demand by scheduling more flights at those times.

Of course, all of these observations are only forecasts based on published schedules, and any number of factors, from bad weather to security problems, can disrupt these patterns.

That's why it's always wise to check out the actual situation before you leave for the airport. That's relatively easy to do by visiting the airport's Web site, www.flypittsburgh.com, where you can find out the status of any departing flight, as well as how full the various parking lots are and how long the security wait will be.

Unfortunately, getting to Pittsburgh International can be another problem, as travelers who are trying to get to and from there during this weekend's repaving of the Parkway South and Squirrel Hill tunnels are discovering.

When long-term improvements like these are causing temporary but anxiety-producing inconveniences, PAT's 28X, which travels over the West Busway, may be the fastest way to and from the airport.

Forewarned is forearmed.


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