Ariel Rehr arrived at O’Hare International Airport about two hours early for a domestic flight — but still wound up stranded for over 15 hours.
Earlier warnings that lengthy airport security lines would prevent travelers from making their flights on time — despite arriving early — have become a reality for travelers in Chicago recently.
Rehr, a recent college graduate from New York City, is just one of hundreds who missed their flights out of the Windy City over the past few days. And this weekend’s horror stories may just be a prelude to the anxiety ahead as we approach Memorial Day.
She was on her way home from Chicago with three friends after attending BookCon, an annual fan convention. They arrived at the airport Sunday at 5:40 p.m. for a 7:50 p.m. flight. She thought 90 minutes in advance was the recommended time for a domestic flight but said the check-in email suggested two hours.
“We waited in line for security from 5:40 till 8:00. Just finding the end of the line was crazy, and there were no employees around who had any answers,” Rehr told Yahoo News. “People were cutting, probably because they couldn’t find the real end.”
She had missed her flight by the time she got through security, so she ran to a different gate for a later flight that was also heading to LaGuardia Airport in Queens, N.Y.
Rehr was added to a standby list for the next flight but was later removed because people who missed flights earlier than hers took priority.
“We ran from gate to gate trying to get on the next flights, but we kept getting moved down on standby,” she said. “There were dozens of us running and trying to get on the same flights.”
After Rehr failed to get on the final flight of the night, she called American Airlines (AA) to book another flight for 1 p.m. the next day. Around that time, workers at the airport set up cots and handed out blankets and small pillows, which were taken away at 4 a.m. Then they were left to wander the airport for hours, she said.
“And there was no one around to answer any questions or help or offer any assistance,” she said. “There were families with little kids who got woken up to hand back their beds. It was so sad.”
Finally, she said, around 8:30 a.m., she pleaded with helpful AA employees, who managed to get them on a 10 a.m. flight.
“It was my first trip to Chicago, and I had a great time, but that airport experience was the worst I’ve ever had. I don’t know if I’ll ever fly back there, at least not until major changes are made to the security process,” Rehr said.
— Ariel Sara (@TheArielSara) May 16, 2016
On Tuesday morning, after days of headaches, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommended that travelers arrive three hours before all flights because of the exceptionally long waits.
Many travelers were taking to social media to vent their frustrations over what may be a prelude to a spate of maddening summer travel. Some included #iHateTheWait as part of a campaign recently launched by Airlines for America, a trade group representing various U.S. airlines, to shine a light on the problem.
Jason Pearl, a software designer, said he was “completely shocked at the length of the line” when he arrived at O’Hare around 7 a.m. Monday for a flight to Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina. He had applied for “global entry” a few months ago and got through in 20 minutes, but his colleague was not so lucky, he said.
“It really makes me question air travel as an option,” Pearl said to Yahoo News. “That picture barely captures it.”
— jason pearl (@jsonperl) May 16, 2016
Jen Wiltse, a student at the University of Illinois, flew from O’Hare to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Monday. She said her brothers and sister all had longer than average lines over the weekend.
“The biggest issue is they have numerous lines for security and don’t have anyone saying which one is for which terminals or airlines,” she said.
Wiltse said her brother got to the airport three hours early and only made it to his flight 10 minutes after it was originally supposed to take off. (It was delayed.) He had been in a security line for 45 minutes before anyone announced that it was only for AA, she said.
“There’s no clear directions anywhere and, like, five different security lines all intersecting,” she added.
— Jen Wiltse (@JDubb3) May 16, 2016
The situation was not much better at Chicago’s Midway International Airport.
Lexie Hammesfahr, an entertainment reporter, was in Midway around 11 a.m. on Sunday for a flight back to Atlanta after spending the weekend in Chicago.
“The lines are really daunting, but Midway did a really good job of moving us through pretty quickly. I was probably only in the line an hour,” Hammesfahr told Yahoo News over the phone. “They did a good job. There were probably 300 people in front of me though.”
On Thursday afternoon, the line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was about half the length of Midway’s, she said.
— Lexie Hammesfahr (@lexiehammesfahr) May 15, 2016
Another flier’s roughly two-minute video of a Midway line stretching on and on went viral quickly after being uploaded to YouTube Thursday.
Leslie Scott, a spokeswoman for AA, said TSA lines in O’Hare have exceeded two hours and that about 450 of their passengers missed fights on Sunday. They were able to rebook most of the travelers for later flights that day, she said.
“Unfortunately, those passengers who missed the last flights of the day did end up having to overnight in Chicago at the airport,” Scott said in a phone interview with Yahoo News.
AA delayed roughly 30 flights on Sunday to accommodate passengers who were stuck in the lines.
The Chicago Aviation Department and the TSA could not be reached immediately for comment.
According to the Associated Press, the TSA cut 10 percent of its airport screening staff over the past three years because people would be able to set up a quicker screening process called PreCheck. But not enough people signed up, and lines started to grow.
The Chicago Sun-Times reports that O’Hare now has the highest number of travelers and the lowest number of security screeners than at any other time in the past five years.
O’Hare is the nation’s second busiest airport, but the long-line problem has affected many airports throughout the country.
It’s even more frustrating for AA, Scott said, because the company is investing in its own passenger experience at airports across the country — about $3 million on new or upgraded planes, wifi, food and other things. But long lines can undercut the desire to create a positive experience.
“We know it is extremely frustrating for our customers to get to airport and have to wait on line for two hours. It’s equally frustrating for our employees,” she said. “We have 9,000 employees here at O’Hare that do everything they can to get our flights out on time, to give our passengers a great experience. And they can’t do that if people are stuck at the front of the terminal standing on line for two hours.”
The lines were more manageable on Tuesday than Monday because it is a lighter travel day in general, she said.