Phone apps, websites save hassle at the airport

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 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.

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

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.

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

WhatsBusy, which is also available as a website (whatsbusy.com), 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.

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 about 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.

TSAwait (www.taclogic.com/TSAwait.html) 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 crowd-sourced app.

The publisher also produces a companion app called FAAwait, which alerts users to FAA air traffic delays and ground stops.

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.

During the 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 (www.clearme.com), a WhatsBusy partner that uses biometric data to give you faster access to a TSA security line.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “Scammed.” Read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or email him at celliott@ngs.org.

© 2013 Christopher Elliott/ Tribune Media Services, Inc.

More in Life

‘Last Jedi’ is the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since the first one

This instant-classic popcorn movie makes clever references to the past while embracing the new.

‘The Shape of Water’: 1950s creature feature meets 2017 allegory

Director Guillermo del Toro’s allegory bears his fetishes for monsters and surrealistic environments.

‘Ferdinand’ a modern take on the beloved children’s story

The lovable bull is back in an enjoyable but spotty animated film from the makers of “Ice Age.”

Art mimicks reality in engrosing ‘On the Beach at Night Alone’

The Korean film tells the story of an actress recovering from an affair with a married director.

Everett’s Michael ‘Scooby’ Silva is the leader of the (dog) pack

Since 2012, he’s built a thriving business walking dogs while their owners are at work.

Student winners to perform concertos with Mukilteo orchestra

This annual show is a partnership with the Snohomish County Music Teachers Association.

Seattle Men’s Chorus brings sassy brassy good time to Everett

The annual show, this year at the Historic Everett Theatre, has warmth of brass and pinch of sass.

This harp concert is worth the journey to Everett

Annual holiday show by Bronn and Katherine Journey is Wednesday at Everett Performing Arts Center.

Still looking for that one special recipe for the holidays?

Columnist Jan Roberts-Dominguez shares her traditional recipes for cheese soup and chocolate sauce.

Most Read