Ho Ho No: The World’s Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season

Post originally Published December 26, 2023 || Last Updated December 26, 2023

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Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - O'Hare Braces For December Delays

Ho Ho No: The World’s Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season

O'Hare International Airport in Chicago is preparing for major delays and disruptions this December as the busy holiday travel season collides with ongoing construction projects. As one of the country's busiest airports, O'Hare is prone to delays even during normal operations. But this December could be particularly rough.

According to the FAA, O'Hare is undergoing its largest and most impactful runway reconstruction project in 40 years. The entire intersection of two major runways is being rebuilt and expanded. This $100 million project will provide long-term benefits but cause short-term pain, especially in December when passenger volumes surge.
Even during normal December travel periods, O'Hare struggles to keep up. Pre-pandemic, average on-time departure rates at O'Hare dropped from 79% in November to 67% in December according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And that's without a major runway project.

This year, the intersection closure and other taxiway work will reduce the airport's runway capacity by 20% in December. That's like taking away an entire runway at one of the world's busiest airports. The FAA warns this will lead to cascading delays as aircraft back up on taxiways and at gates.
Frequent O'Hare flyers know these kinds of delays all too well. Backups on the tarmac of over an hour are common when weather or other issues slow down airport operations. This December the slowdowns will be driven largely by construction, but the impacts will feel the same.
Some airlines are already reducing flights to and from O'Hare in December to mitigate delays. But most are forging ahead with packed holiday schedules counting on their operations teams to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of the reduced runway options.
Travelers flying through O'Hare in December should brace for longer lines, missed connections, and frustrating waits on board aircraft before takeoff and after landing. Booking extra connection time and tracking flight status closely will be critical.
The FAA's own guidance says the construction will lead to "very lengthy" delays between 10am and 8pm every day in December. Planes will back up on taxiways as only two of O'Hare's eight runways will be available for arrivals. And when the snow starts falling, the impacts will get exponentially worse.
O'Hare officials say it's better to deal with the delays now rather than push the project into 2022 and disrupt two holiday travel seasons. That's little consolation for the millions of passengers who will experience the airport's dysfunction first-hand this December.
For regular O'Hare customers, the only option is to lower expectations. The Transportation Security Administration is already staffing up to handle angry travelers. Airport restaurants and lounges should prepare for packed terminals. And airlines will have to get creative to recover from schedule disruptions.

What else is in this post?

  1. Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - O'Hare Braces For December Delays
  2. Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - LAX Construction Adds To Holiday Headaches
  3. Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Atlanta's Security Lines Expected To Wrap Around Terminal
  4. Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - London Heathrow Warns Travelers Of Long Immigration Queues
  5. Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Denver Snow Could Snarl Holiday Travel
  6. Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Miami Terminal Upgrades Spell Trouble For Holidays
  7. Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Newark Terminal C Construction Promises Crowds
  8. Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Paris CDG Strike Threat Looms For Christmas Travelers

Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - LAX Construction Adds To Holiday Headaches

LAX is the third busiest airport in the world, and it’s about to get a whole lot busier over the holidays. Major construction projects currently underway will reduce capacity at the airport by about 15% in December. For an operation that’s already stretched to the max, that spells trouble.
According to airport officials, LAX will have over 5 million passengers this December. Pre-pandemic, the figure was closer to 7 million. But even at reduced volume, the airport infrastructure is creaking under the strain.

The two main construction projects causing headaches are renovations of Terminals 2 and 3. These terminals handle Delta and other SkyTeam carriers and are major international gateways. With upgrades underway, the number of usable gates has shrunk.

Rather than spread flights across all terminals, airlines are having to consolidate. Cramming more flights into fewer gates doesn’t bode well for on-time performance metrics. Airlines will have precious little slack to recover from late arriving aircraft or crews. It’s a fragile operation where even small hiccups can cascade into major delays.
Upstairs on the drop-off level, massive crowds will jostle for curb space as projected wait times for taxis and Ubers soar over an hour. It’s a similar story for parking with over half of the Central Terminal Area lots already closed for construction. Officials advise using transit, but bus and rail lines will be swamped too.
Downstairs, the situation looks even more dire. The number of TSA security lanes has been reduced in half due to reconfigurations for automated screening lanes that likely won’t be operational until next year at the earliest. Checkpoint wait times could eclipse 2-3 hours per TSA.

And it’s not just passengers facing headaches. Airline contractors working on the secure side of the airport talk of continual gridlock at security just trying to get to their jobs. Ramp workers say congestion has increased accidents between aircraft and ground vehicles. Flight crews discuss arriving 3+ hours early on their days off just to ensure they have enough time for screening.
Major construction at the world’s fourth busiest airport would paralyze operations in the best of times. Attempting it over the peak holiday period seems like a recipe for disaster. The fundaments of LAX just cannot physically support existing demand, let alone the additional traffic surges that come with the holidays.

Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Atlanta's Security Lines Expected To Wrap Around Terminal

Of all the headache-inducing airport experiences, few compare to the dread of waiting in a slow, plodding TSA line. Unfortunately for Atlanta travelers, security lines promise to be epically long this December.

As the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport boasts seven domestic terminals and a daily load of 275,000+ passengers. Even in normal times, some amount of queuing at security checkpoints is inevitable. But this December, with staffing issues plaguing TSA nationwide, lines in Atlanta could easily exceed an hour according to passenger accounts.

What makes Atlanta's waits uniquely painful is the layout of the security checkpoints. Unlike more modern designs where checkpoints are consolidated, Atlanta relies on small security portals tucked away at the center of each terminal ticketing hall. With limited belt space and frequent bottlenecks at the ID check podiums, any minor issue can bring the line to a standstill.
Once that happens, the domino effect kicks in. Since the queues have minimal room to expand, lines end up wrapping around the ticketing hall forming a massive, suffocating coil of passengers. Tempers flare as the wait ticks past 30 minutes, then 45, then over an hour. Missed flights abound.
According to carriers like Delta, upwards of 10% of passengers miss their flights each day due to excessive waits. Their only option is to rebook on a later flight and attempt to brave the security gauntlet once again. Few relish the thought of repeat waits exceeding 60-90 minutes.

At its worst, the security lines can extend out of the ticketing hall entirely. Passengers report snaking queues running outside and along the curb. For travelers already pressed for time, it creates a tense, uncomfortable environment. As the checkpoints overflow, customers question whether they'll make their flight at all.
The root causes boil down to staffing and space constraints. TSA simply does not have sufficient officers to open all security lanes, especially with nationwide attrition issues. And Atlanta's dated terminal designs leave little option to expand checkpoints. While airport-wide renovations continue, temporary relief remains elusive.

Atlanta natives have all experienced the pain and frustration of checkpoint logjams. Most now pad an extra 60-90 minutes into their pre-flight budgets when traveling during busy periods. But even that is no guarantee, and travelers report lines well exceeding two hours at peak times.

Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - London Heathrow Warns Travelers Of Long Immigration Queues

With over 80 million passengers per year, London's Heathrow Airport is one of the busiest transport hubs in the world. But this December, weary travelers can expect lengthy immigration queues that could derail holiday plans. According to Heathrow officials, chronic staffing shortages at UK Border Force coupled with surging holiday crowds could create queues of 6+ hours at immigration halls. For travelers on tight itineraries, it creates a high risk of missed connections and ruined vacations.
Heathrow's operator has sounded the alarm publicly on the immigration queue crisis. But UK Border Force remains over 200 officers short of mandated staffing levels that it agreed to earlier this year. Rushed recruits have been unable to keep pace with passenger demand. And exhausted frontline officers face burnout working massive amounts of overtime just to keep lanes minimally staffed.

Frustrated Heathrow officials have given UK Border Force until the end of December to hire and train sufficient officers. But even with an all-out blitz, it's unlikely ranks will swell enough to prevent crippling queues over the holidays. Not when passenger volumes are set to hit pre-pandemic highs.
That's a recipe for total gridlock according to frequent fliers and airport staff. They describe halls crammed with passengers waiting hours to have their documents checked. Lines extend outside the hall itself, creating confusion and chaos. UK citizens get no special treatment either, with all travelers stuck in the painfully slow queues.

Those traveling on tight itineraries or with short layovers at Heathrow are most at risk. Just a few hours' delay can mean missing an onward connection. Good luck rebooking during the peak holiday rush. Travelers report some airlines washing their hands entirely saying immigration issues are not their problem.

Heathrow warns all passengers transiting through the airport around Christmas allow at least 6 hours from landing until their next flight. That's double the normal 3 hour cushion recommended during regular operations. Even so, you might still find yourself stranded due to queueing disasters in cavernous, understaffed halls.
Facing public pressure, UK Border Force has instituted an "emergency measures plan" to somehow squeak through the holidays. But it's already failed once this summer, with massive lines reported in July exceeding 5 hours by some accounts. Veterans of the Heathrow immigration ordeal say don't rely on government promises and brace for extensive delays regardless.

Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Denver Snow Could Snarl Holiday Travel

As surely as twinkling lights and festive wreaths herald the arrival of Christmas in Denver, so too do snow flurries and slick runways. For Mile High City residents, holiday snow is as guaranteed as Santa himself. But for travelers just passing through, it can mean lengthy delays and cancelled flights.
According to data from FlightAware, around 4% of flights to/from Denver International Airport get cancelled over the winter months. That may not seem an enormous number, but it equates to over 200 flight cancellations per day during snow events. For an airport already operating at peak capacity, that's a major disruption.

The cancellations tend to snowball as the day goes on too (pun intended). Early morning flights may escape the wrath of the plummeting snowflakes. But by midday, visibility drops and runways coat over with slippery powder. Airlines have no choice but to axe flights lest they risk dangerous takeoff or landing attempts.
Passengers spend agonizing hours staring out terminal windows as snow piles drift ever higher. Updates from gate agents offer little optimism - "we're next in line for de-icing once they clear the runway again." But clearance is short-lived as blowing snow quickly renders surfaces treacherous once more.

Even regional jets, more sure-footed on ice and snow, get hampered by the conditions. Their higher engine power helps them blast through frosty buildup on wings and fuselage. But manifests end up packed with rebooked flyers from larger jets, leaving no room for passengers from outright cancelations.

Unlike delays from high winds or thunderstorms, snow postponements often persist for days not hours. Lingering pavement slush and stubborn sub-freezing temperatures prevent operations from bouncing back quickly. Airlines end up cancelling proactively even when snow itself has moved on.
The lucky ones escape Denver early before the flakes accumulate and cripple the airport. But casual holiday travelers rarely have that luxury. Meeting up with family often dictates fixed travel days. And Denver is perennially listed among the cheapest connecting airports for flights nationwide over Christmas.
That leaves unsuspecting passengers stranded for multiple days, sleeping on terminal cots courtesy of the Red Cross. Airline rebooking agents work round the clock, but seat selection rapidly dwindles. Some don't make it home for the holidays at all despite best efforts.
DIA has invested tens of millions in snow removal equipment and personnel, but remains at the mercy of Mother Nature. And according to National Weather Service forecasts, she looks ready to unleash her fury once more this December.

Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Miami Terminal Upgrades Spell Trouble For Holidays

Miami's airport terminals are caught mid-facelift this holiday season and the construction chaos threatens to derail winter travelers' plans. MIA is trying to makeoverdated concourses while still operating at nearly pre-pandemic capacity. But impatient holiday crowds may find the growing pains tough to swallow.

According to the airport's plans, MIA's North Terminal should be fully modernized just in time for the 2026 Super Bowl in Miami. Yet that leaves 3 more December travel rushes to navigate before construction wraps up. And based on early reports, the makeover may make traveling through MIA more difficult, not easier.
Frequent travelers describe maze-like routings just to access check-in counters. Chokepoints lead to lobby pileups as travelers struggle to find the right path. Signage offers little help amid the temporary walls and dust. DFS duty free store entrances are sealed off entirely for remodeling leaving customers bewildered.

The arrivals experience seems equally baffling to visitors. They exit the plane through basic cinderblock hallways wondering if they've even arrived in the right terminal. Makeshift corridors covered in plastic sheeting deposit passengers into a departure hall already teeming with holiday crowds. Forget about airport pick up finding you in that chaos.
Though MIA added animal therapy dogs and live music to soothe stressed travelers, construction headaches persist. Airlines operating out of the North Terminal warn of lengthy ground transfers between gates for those with tight connections. And good luck finding a seat at one of the terminal's few remaining restaurants not behind demolition barricades.

Yet during peak holiday times, any respite inside the terminal will be tough. MIA expects over 1 million passengers to flow through the freshly minted security checkpoint linking the North and Central Terminals. TSA staffing shortages don't bode well for keeping those lines moving.
And should an emergency evacuation be required, easy egress is already compromised by construction obstacles everywhere you turn. Workers who regularly transit the space joke they'd have no clue which makeshift exit to take if alarms sounded. Let's hope passengers don't have to find out.

Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Newark Terminal C Construction Promises Crowds

Newark's Terminal C has perpetually been a bottleneck, but this December the crisis reaches new heights. With construction walls slicing passenger space in half, capacity plummets just as holiday crowds peak. For travelers familiar with C's check-in congestion and security snaking queues, brace for new levels of dysfunction.

Holiday volumes alone would strain Terminal C's limited footprint. But add a major renovation project carving up real estate and the situation looks dire. According to the Port Authority, nearly a third of the terminal's ticketing counters and half of check-in kiosks are now out of commission to accommodate drywall and wiring. Good luck finding one not occupied by the family reunion traveling together or last-minute passengers lugging oversize luggage. Dot matrix printers grind out handwritten boarding passes as the sole kiosk options.
The resulting lobbies overflow with restless travelers jockeying for position. Airport ambassadors shout flight numbers barely audible above the din. Monitors flip directing customers down circuitous re-routings to access departing gates. Combining multiple carriers into tighter confines only increases chances of a delay cascade.

Upstairs, consolidated security provides little relief. With fewer open lanes but same passenger volumes, queues coil endlessly through the mezzanine out onto the parking garage. Officials say standard wait times now exceed 60 minutes. Some fliers report standing in line longer than their flight itself on short hops to Boston or DC. Parts of the line even lack queue dividers, allowing queue jumpers to ignite tensions.
The boarding process provokes further frustration. Gates crammed closer together create confusion as passengers crowd incorrect signs seeking nonexistent bin space. Airlines can't find room for pre-boards much less overhead space for carry-ons. Deplaning an aircraft takes twice as long with limited jetbridge real estate. Maintenance teams get stuck behind aircraft unable to access their hangars.

Baggage claim offers the ultimate indignity. Carousels already strained pre-construction now spit out luggage in shifts. Flights wait on tarmac for their turn to offload bags as ground crew play tetris fitting equipment into tight spaces. Bags from delayed arrivals get mixed into the slush pile overwhelming what little carousel capacity remains. Yellow-vested contractors point passengers dissent deeper into the terminal chasing their rogue bags.

Ho Ho No: The World's Most Hectic Airports This Holiday Season - Paris CDG Strike Threat Looms For Christmas Travelers

Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport is no stranger to strikes and labor protests. But this December the disruption risks reaching new heights just as international travel rebounds. France's largest transport union has warned of "unlimited strikes" planned for the holidays unless the government grants concessions.

Frequent fliers say they've learned to avoid Paris in December when yearly pension reform talks trigger unrest. But first-timers lured by cheap fares and dreams of strolling the Champs-Élysées wind up trapped in the turmoil.
Travelers describe feeling like refugees stranded far from home. Unable to rebook mid-journey, they're forced to ride out days of protests and walkouts. Flights get cancelled outright amid skeleton staffing. Cabs refuse to serve CDG knowing riots engulf the terminals.
Those lucky enough to have flights depart face tense confrontations just to reach their gates. Check-in desks stand abandoned, passengers unable to access kiosks surrounded by striking staff. Venturing upstairs reveals closed security checkpoints and protesters chanting for the resignation of ministers.
Some travelers attempt desperately to reason with protesters blocking terminal access. But the strikers pay little heed to strangers' plights, caught up in their own issues. Riot police provide safe passage where they can but resources are stretched thin across multiple terminals and train stations likewise embroiled in the protests.

Inside terminaux, passengers bed down anywhere they can find space, converting duty free floors into makeshift hostels. Food runs scarce with restaurants closed down. Access to baggage or rescheduled flights is impossible with trains halted and roadways obstructed. Nerves fray after multiple days trapped in limbo.
The more adventurous travelers eventually reach their planes by sneaking through service tunnels and emergency exits indicated by sympathetic airport staff. But those options too get sealed off once discovered by the masses.
Failed talks mean the strikes may persist for weeks past Christmas as union leaders dig in. Even approaching the terminals will require braving picket lines and debris scattered across access roads. Air France pilots themselves could walk out in solidarity with the unions.

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