How Early Should You Get to the Airport During COVID-19?

Oct 11, 2020
Flying during COVID-19 comes with new complexities and potential risks that didn't exist before. With new safety protocols in place, you may be wondering about its effects on lines and wait times. Find out the best time to get to the airport in this blog.

Just about everything in 2020 is different than in previous years, thanks to a global pandemic and the economic recession that’s come along with it. In all sorts of areas, the standard advice that’s been good for years no longer works. This extends to restaurants, events, vacations, and even healthcare.

Traveling During COVID Brings New Complexities

Of course, the travel industry has seen an outsized impact as well. Traveling during COVID is complicated. Every form of public or commercial transportation carries at least a slightly elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission for the simple reason that you’re around other people. And because COVID-19 can be transmitted by people without symptoms, those other people could potentially be contagious — even if they feel perfectly healthy.

An Elevated Risk, But Not Like You Might Think

There’s been plenty of talk about flying during COVID-19. Governments have banned international travel, which largely takes place via flight. Airlines have responded by leaving seats open, among other precautions. And it does seem like sitting in an airplane for two or three hours “breathing the same air” as the other passengers would be dangerous.

The thing is, that last point — breathing the same air — isn’t how airplanes actually work. It’s a common misnomer.

According to the CDC, the way that air circulates and gets filtered on airplanes means that most viruses don’t spread easily through airplane air. There’s an elevated risk in traveling, but it’s more about the proximity to others—in the security line, in the waiting area, even in your ride-share once you arrive.

The Right Time to Arrive at the Airport: General Guidance

What time to arrive at the airport for a flight is one of those questions that’s really important, yet the answer varies for people, depending on a number of factors.

Before COVID-19, general guidance was that for domestic flights where you don’t have any luggage, you need to arrive at least 60 minutes before departure. That means walking in the front door, not parking in the economy lot, by the way. If you have luggage, add another 30 minutes, for 90 minutes total time. If you’re flying internationally, you’ll want to allow at least two hours.

Of course, if you’re traveling in a large group or with small children or those needing assistance, you’ll want to adjust your arrival time earlier.

The right arrival time will vary based on the airport you’re flying out of, too. If you’re at a massive international hub, you may need to allow yourself more time to physically get from the entrance to your gate. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, for example, features six massive terminals. If your flight is departing from the terminal farthest from check-in, you may need upwards of 20 minutes to get there. And if the tram service should be interrupted, you’ll need much more.

One of the advantages of flying out of St. Pete-Clearwater International is that we aren’t a massive international hub. As a regional airport with a less intense schedule of arrivals and departures, we tend to be faster in terms of service and turnaround time. Passengers can often move through a bit faster than average.

The Right Time to Arrive at the Airport During COVID-19

If the general guidance is 60 minutes with no luggage, 90 minutes with luggage and 2 hours for international, many travelers are wondering when to arrive during COVID-19. Does traveling during COVID-19 take longer because of added cleaning protocols, or does it take less time because fewer people are flying?

The Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) has a helpful resource on what it’s like to get through security during COVID-19. Social distancing measures are in place, and agents have reduced physical contact where possible. There may be increased wait times during busy times due to increased cleaning protocols.

At the same time, overall passenger volumes remain very low compared to a year ago. Daily passenger counts rarely exceed 1 million, where last year they sat between 2 and 2.5 million. With fewer passengers to screen, the TSA tends to move passengers through pretty quickly.

It’s hard to set a single metric that’s applicable across every airport. Sky Scanner suggests arriving 2 hours prior to a domestic flight and 3 hours prior to an international flight, noting that larger airports may suggest even earlier arrivals. Check our FAQ page to see what the airlines recommend.

What about here at PIE? At St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, we’re currently recommending that passengers arrive 2 hours before their flights depart. This amount of time should account for every eventuality, getting you to your departure gate well in advance of departure. Additionally, passengers with questions about their upcoming flights are encouraged to contact their airline directly.

Thanks for Choosing PIE When Traveling During COVID

From all of us at PIE, we know you have a choice when traveling during COVID. We appreciate your choosing to travel through St. Pete-Clearwater International. Stay safe during your travels!