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.

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