Austin airport ‘apocalypse’ features 2-hour security lines

On the heels of a NASCAR race at Circuit of the Americas, Texas Relays, and Dell Match Play, passengers arrived before sunrise on Monday, March 28 to another standing-room-only event. This time it was the Austin travel nightmare at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA). Security lines stretched outside the airport, people abandoned rentals by the side of the road, blocked pathways for strollers and wheelchairs, and the tweets kept rolling in about the chaos. 

The congestion was so bad that ABIA felt compelled to respond to the onslaught of images being posted online. The airport noted that it processed almost 9,000 passengers before 8 a.m. on Sunday, March 27, and 8,252 before the same time on Monday. As a result, it plans to expedite improvements through its Airport Development Program. 

ABIA is also asking passengers to show up more than two hours before scheduled flight times for the entire month of April.

Five of the airport’s busiest days have come in the last two-and-a-half years, according to a recent sheet uploaded by ABIA. Two of those days fell in mid-March 2022, right as SXSW was set to begin. But a spokesperson for the airport told MySA that those numbers are already out-of-date, and that they cannot update the sheet quickly enough.

The writing has been on the wall for a while. Just last week, Austin City Council approved $2.3 million to hire 80 new airport staff this fiscal year. That includes 50 front-line workers, to handle the increase in passengers and to get ahead of an expected bump in summer airline travel. 

Those hires, which have not yet begun, cannot come quickly enough.

When ABIA opened in southeast Austin in 1999, it was replacing an outdated and undersized Robert Mueller Airport. As the city grew, so did demand to pass through Austin. From 1988 to 1998, the last full year Muller was in operation, passenger traffic increased from just shy of 4 million to more than 6 million. Today, those numbers seem quaint.

ABIA was constructed to handle 11 million passengers; it exceeded that mark by 2014. For this reason, ABIA expanded from 25 to 34 gates in 2019, which bumped up the expected capacity to 15 million. But that same year was the airport’s busiest ever, with over 17 million people passing through.

It’s going to get worse. By 2037, ABIA expects to see 31 million travelers annually. To meet rapidly increasing demand, it promises to “modernize AUS by building critical infrastructure and delivering improvements.”

Austin travelers met with long lines as city hosts several weekend events

Courtesy, Joey Dillon

The robust population increase in Austin is not, according to ABIA, the only factor driving this increased congestion at the airport. Because it serves as what is called a “reliever airport” for the other Texas airports, it receives more diversions than anywhere else in the country.

Passengers traveling through ABIA can only hope that the airport soon gets some relief of its own.


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