Don’t like to wait around? There’s an app for that

Veronica Louro/Shutterstock
Veronica Louro/Shutterstock
Like many air travelers, Caitlin Ariens used to play it safe when she flew. She’d arrive at the airport two hours before departure to give herself enough time to check in and go through Transportation Security Administration screening. At this time of year, she might have added another half-hour, just in case she encountered a longer-than-expected line.

But that was before Ariens, a nurse recruiter for a hospital in Austin, discovered a smartphone app called WhatsBusy. It displays an estimated wait time for security at major airports, allowing her to gauge how long she’ll have to wait almost down to the minute.

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“It allows me to make the best use of my time,” she says.

WhatsBusy is one of a handful of programs, sites and strategies that will ensure that your next trip doesn’t inspire you to write a sequel to “The Terminal,” the Tom Hanks movie about a man stranded at an airport. And who wants to do that during the busy holiday travel season?

Ariens’s app, WhatsBusy, informed her of a short wait before a recent trip from Austin to Nashville. “I used the extra 30 minutes I thought I needed to complete a work project, saving me both time and stress,” she says.

WhatsBusy, which is also available as a Web site, harnesses internal data from the TSA’s systems to build an algorithm that forecasts wait times, according to Jordan Thaeler, the company’s co-founder. He says that the TSA does a fairly good job of managing its lines, even during the holidays. “But they can get out of hand,” he adds.

You can access the TSA’s unfiltered data, plus read the agency’s sanctioned tips, with its official app (www.tsa.gov/mobile). The TSA app uses wait time information reported by other air travelers. If you fly only a few times a year, the mobile app can be a useful way to access the latest information on the agency’s prohibited items. The program also lists the location of PreCheck screening areas, which allow preapproved air travelers to shortcut the regular security line, and answers the TSA’s most frequently asked questions.

The official app has a few weaknesses and plenty of critics. Users on Apple’s iTunes store give it three out of a possible five stars, dinging it for what they call its imprecise data (wait times are listed in vague increments instead of actual minutes) and absence of certain domestic airports. For example, one user complained that Anchorage was missing from the airport list, adding, “It’s self-serving PR and a total waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Another app called TSAwait lets you review the TSA’s wait-time data in a more elegant format, but it’s based on older data supplied by the TSA before it switched to a crowdsourced app. The publisher also produces a companion app called FAAwait, which alerts users to FAA air traffic delays and ground stops. Nancy Nally, a writer who lives in Palm Coast, Fla., uses both these apps to stay abreast of air travel problems. “I frequently know about flight delays before they are posted,” she says.

A representative for the app’s developer, Tactical Logic, says that the company believes there’s a chance the TSA will begin publishing official wait-time data again soon and is leaving the TSAwait app on the market in the “admittedly slim” hope that this will happen.

But an app can take you only so far during the holidays. Unless you catch the red-eye or travel on the actual holiday — two favorite strategies for avoiding lengthy wait times — you’ll probably end up in a long security line. That’s not a problem for Sid Savara, a Honolulu-based software engineer who honed his air travel skills commuting to the mainland. His takeaway: The TSA favors the unprepared.

“Security always rewards the bad behavior of people who arrive late at the terminal, because they don’t want people to miss their flight,” he says. “I see poor planning by tourists all the time, who arrive at the airport at the last minute and are then given VIP treatment to skip to the front of the line.”

So Savara quit planning.

“I stopped worrying about when I arrived at the airport,” he says. “Instead of stressing out when I was running late, I just went straight to the TSA officer checking IDs and told them that my flight is leaving in 20 minutes. The agent instructed me to come to the front of the line.”

During the upcoming holidays, the TSA will probably be pushing its new PreCheck program, which costs $85 for a five-year membership. There have already been reports that agents are prodding air travelers stuck in long lines to sign up for the program. The benefits of PreCheck include being able to use a preferred line, where you can leave your shoes, light outerwear and belt on, keep your laptop in its case and your bag of liquids and gels in your carry-on.

Thaeler, the WhatsBusy co-founder, says that he prefers Clear, a WhatsBusy partner that uses biometric data to give you faster access to a TSA security line. “It’s a much more efficient alternative to PreCheck,” he says, because it’s smaller and has shorter lines. Perhaps a little too small; it’s currently only in seven U.S. airports, including two on the East Coast: Orlando and Westchester County, N.Y.

If you’re trying to avoid a long security line and potential delays during the holidays, chances are that a combination of smartphone applications and strategies will get you through the most unpleasant part of your flight — your TSA screening — as quickly as possible.

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30 thoughts on “Don’t like to wait around? There’s an app for that

  1. Looked up TSA acronyms. Three Stooges Agency is an adequate description. Does anyone truly feel safer or just more harassed? Flying has transformed into an exercise of futility. No longer is travel a seamless and fun process.

    I put forth the argument we have 16-22,000 murders annually within the U.S. 80% INVOLVE FIREARMS. Americans accept the risk of gun ownership as a constituional freedom (let’s not argue gun rights).

    Point here is that terrorism is a rare occurence comparative to domestic acts of violence. Yet, all we hear relinquishing rights is necessary to remain safe.

    Tsa doesn’t make me feel safe. Pre 2001 security with minor modifications works fine. No security is perfect and life comes with inherent risks. Id gladly risk dissolving the tsa for a better travel experience.

  2. Chris, Whatsbusy is only available for the iPhone/iPad. Worldwide, only about 20% of smart phones and devices use iOS. About 75% use Android and the remainder are split between Windows and Blackberry. It would be helpful if, in future articles about apps, you were to let your readers know which operating system the apps run under. If I knew that the software runs only on iOS, I wouldn’t have spent time searching for it on Google Play.

  3. On Thursday night, I was checking into LAX’s Terminal 3 to take a flight out, and I was surprised to be random-selected (as well as many people) on spot for the random PreCheck procedures which is explained above “During the upcoming holidays, the TSA will probably be pushing its new
    PreCheck program, which costs $85 for a five-year membership. There have
    already been reports that agents are prodding air travelers stuck in
    long lines to sign up for the program. The benefits of PreCheck include
    being able to use a preferred line, where you can leave your shoes,
    light outerwear and belt on, keep your laptop in its case and your bag
    of liquids and gels in your carry-on.” No prodding at all… just given red-laminated card (to be re-used over) explaining my family’s being random selected. It was a breeze, but still the lines were long.

  4. Paying for the privelege of having the sembelence of dignity restored. Sounds goverment enough.

    Cutting the chase, pre check is nothing more than a money making proposition. Do you think frequent travelers or those paying a fee are “safer” than the rest?

    Gimmick if you ask me.

  5. Empirically about 18% of PreCheck passengers get yanked out of the VIP line and back into the plebeian line

  6. It takes as long at it takes to get through security at the airport. If you are depending on an app to show up later than you should please don’t write to Chris when you miss your flight.

  7. Out of an abundance of caution, the TSA needs to ensure its security procedures are unpredictable and cannot be gamed by those who hate freedom.

  8. I don’t trust the TSA, so will never put their app on my phone. Based upon reviews I’ve read, a big drawback for wait time features, including TSA’s, is that wait times over 30 min is just listed as 31+ min.

    There’s a huge difference between 32 min and 90 min. It’s disingenous to me that they can say, “Only X% were over 30 minutes!” but if most of that percentage is actually over 60 minutes, they won’t to say that.

    I prefer to go to airport websites for parking, screening wait times, delays, etc. Flightaware.com is good too.

    Also, I just assume the screening area will be poorly run and show up early whenever possible. If I actually get through quickly, then that is a plus for me.

  9. I find it creepy and a waste of our taxes that TSA screeners will be pushing people to spend $85 to be background checked and fingerprinted to get on a plane.

    They offer our rights back to us, like a carrot on a string. Does that make us asses if we play along?

  10. safer no….expedited yes.

    Whether it’s a gimmick or not, we’d have to ask the people who paid.

  11. I used to show up late and tell the TSA my flight was leaving in x minutes. Now I don’t because a) if I fly Southwest, there’s a chance my checked baggage won’t make it and b) my carry on on another airline where I’m assured a seat assignment might have to be checked at the gate and I don’t want that. (I pack differently for non-Southwest airlines).

  12. I trust my fellow passengers to keep me safe far more than I trust the TSA and we could put that $8 billion to a different wasteful agency.

  13. What’s the societal benefit of gouging travelers and selling expedited service? Seems we lose freedoms and suffer more fees. fun.

  14. The difference is the demographics for iPhone/iPad users tends to be much higher than that of Android or others. As a result, app developers tend to release apps on iOS first – even though it may seem like a smaller market, it’s more lucrative initially. Obviously Android support is smart long-term, but there is a totally valid reason that many leading apps come out on iOS only, at least to start. Keep in mind it takes a lot of investment to build apps for multiple platforms.

  15. That makes no sense.

    How does selling expedited service cause a loss of freedom. As far as gouging, again, do the people who spend $100 or the expedited service feel gouged? I suspect not.

    In our society, we have the liberty to opt out of the general process and pay more if we feel that the end result is worth more than the cash

    Consider

    Fastrack
    AAA
    Private Schools
    Private criminal defense counsel
    ad infinitum

  16. Carver, let me pose a legal quandry. Jim and Bob are American citizens. Jim has 100 dollars to spare to guarantee due process and respect of his constitutional freedoms.

    Bob doesn’t have excess cash. Is it fair that bob suffers indgities due to socio economic status?

    The whole TSA and Post 9/11 overeaches of our government bug the crap out of me (Unpatriotic Act, Spying, Big Brother Etc)

    I liken this whole fiasco to terrorists winning. Someone made a comment that the government throws us a carrot and we’re suppose to happily bite. Since when did a minor restoration of freedoms for “select travelers” become an occasion for celebration?

    Id happily revert to pre 2001 and “risks” for a return of hassle free flying and restoration of libertires?

    Do you feel safer? Is the world somehow safer? Nope. Crime happens, life goes on, and on the rare occasion people hell bent to cause harm will succeed. ill assume the risk to be free.

  17. I didn’t want to get into a discussion of smart phone operating systems. The point that I was trying to make to Chris Elliott is that it is likely that the majority of those reading the article are not able to download Whatbusy and that he should inform his readers when a product that he is reviewing cannot be used by all readers. His response is above your message to me.

  18. You’re all over the place. Let’s take one issue at a time, rather than throwing multiple issues and seeing what sticks. To make sense of what you are trying to say, let me formalize it in legal sense.

    Suppose there is a 5th Amendment due process right that is afforded Americans. The most commonly known examples are the Miranda rights such as the right to an attorney in all cases in which incarceration is a possibility. Jim is rich and hires Johnny Cochran (prior to his death). Bob is poor and gets a public public defender. Both Jim and Bon have received their 6th Amendment Constitutional rights. Jim may receive better legal services, he’ll certainly receive more personable attention. But the public defender will be adequate and competent.

    You’re implicitly likening the expedite fee to poll taxes and literacy tests. The problem is that those were used to deny American citizens the right to vote (a fundamental right). If the expedite fees (or an inability to pay) meant that passengers were unable to fly, then you’d be 110% correct.

    The remaining four paragraphs are a rant unrelated to expedite lines and associates fees. Let’s save that discussion for another time.

  19. Good point – the family who only travels once a year may not find it useful, but a road warrior just might!

  20. This is a capitalist country – not a communist one where it is all things the same for everyone. If I can afford a Birken bag, why should someone who can’t expect they should have one as well?

  21. I’m surprised no one mentioned Gate Guru. Its crowd sourced for wait times, and always seems to be pretty accurate. It also helps users find good restaurants in the terminals.

  22. Amazes me the absence of comments complaining about the smart ones cutting the lanes. It seems that the people in general are starting to accept this kind of behavior as OK.

  23. Good point, I read that and it annoyed me. It is very inappropriate to do that and I personally don’t think the TSA should reward that kind of behavior.

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