a large crowd of people in a building

In 2022, just about everyone with access to an airport lounge ended up asking the same question at some point. Why is this place so crowded?

I’ve long maintained that if everyone is “VIP”, no one is. Priority Pass doesn’t seem to agree, and accordingly I often find the terminal more civilized than many lounges. In recent months, as record numbers of travelers took to the skies again, things got out of hand.

But even when you alleviate those issues, as brands like American Express will soon do, there’s an interesting question about crowding and you could argue that a lot of it relates to grazing times, and that they may be caused by airport security.

Is Airport Security A Lounge Crowding Factor?

Airlines will each offer slightly different accounts, but if you ever dive into the data on customer “grazing time” within lounges — aka how long they enjoy they — you’ll see one very clear difference among lounge customers.

Business travelers spend far less time in airports and in lounges than leisure travelers do.

So why do leisure travelers spend so much more time in lounges?

One answer which applies to many travelers is that they are savoring the experience more. As a frequent flyer often found near the front, I get to enjoy lounges all the time, but for others, it’s a travel celebration — and that’s a wonderful thing. Stay longer, drink more, eat more — all that stuff.

But that doesn’t account for everyone, and even some people who fall into the “savor the experience” category stay longer for another reason. There’s fear around airport security. Business travelers, by virtue of constant repetition, are often quicker through airport security and have more basis for time estimation.

Many of my favorite flights involve me getting through security just before a flight starts to board. Only in rare occasions or leisure travel am I happy to arrive early and unwind in a lounge.

No one wants to miss their flight, particularly these days and when you don’t zip through an airport frequently, you’re more prepared for the horror stories. Between strikes, poor staffing, airline uncertainty and record numbers flying through, people are padding their arrival times more than ever.

a large machine in a room

Will New Machines Help?

In airports globally, a newer generation of airport security scanner is making its way into the mix. These new Analogic machines don’t require anything to be taken out of bags to efficiently scan things like an MRI machine.

They’ve been tested for years and have already become permanent fixtures in some airports. Reception has been decidedly mixed, but that could be because with any “new” equipment, there’s training and teething issues.

In the few times I’ve used them, I’ve been blown away with their speed and efficiency.

The UK will require all airports to use these next-generation scanners by 2024, and current 100ml liquid restrictions will end with their introduction. Passengers won’t need to take liquids or laptops of any kind out of their bags, and this is where you can start to do some meaningful math.

Reliable Security Times Eliminate Need to Pad Journeys

If you take JFK’s Terminal 4, which claims to serve roughly 46,000 departing passengers daily, you get a clear picture of how each second impacts airport security. If everyone in line must take out a laptop and liquids, you can factor on 30 seconds per passenger, just for this exercise.

There are far fewer minutes in the day than the number of collective seconds this adds up to. If all 46,000 passengers stood in one line and it took 30 seconds per passenger to remove liquids and laptops, it would take up to 15 days to screen one day worth of passengers.

Removing even 30 seconds from each and every passenger could significantly improve reliability in wait times for airport security — even with the TSA — and that could have a very positive impact on grazing times.

If passengers could guarantee 15 minutes or less for airport security, there’d be far less need to arrive so early. This, coupled with more access to online check in from airlines as well as mobile boarding passes could be a game changer.

Leisure travelers will still stay longer than business travelers no matter what happens, but if the average visit goes from 3 hours to 2.5 hours, it could have a significant knock on impact throughout the travel day.

Technology may just be the cure for airport lounge crowding, after all.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Brilliant analysis Gilbert. Thought I had a good idea how long security should take at my home airport (with Clear & PreCheck flying around 150,000 miles a year).

    I was traveling with family a few months ago (Friday evening) and missed my flight as Clear/PreCheck took an hour. So, I started padding my schedule more than usual with longer times in the lounge as a result. Your analysis is spot on. If security were more predictable, I would spend far less time in the lounge.

  2. It’s not just security. Even after checking in bags via United app and seeing the baggage shortcut icon on the boarding pass, we still had to wait 25+ minutes at SFO to do the drop off and ID check.

  3. I wish more lounges had grab and go options, that way I could grab a bag of food and a drink and go spend time at an empty gate. The Centurion lounges at SFO and LAX have done this previously and I thought the grab bags were great.

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