Charlotte Int'l Airport Even Busier Than At Holidays

Jun. 13--More people passed through security at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport on Sunday than on the day before Thanksgiving, which historically is the busiest travel day of the year. They were met with frustratingly long lines, flight delays and cancellations due to severe storms in the Southeast, all colluding to make for a rocky start to what is expected to be the busiest summer for air travel since 2000.

"People are flying at record capacities. We tasted a bit of that last weekend," said Haley Gentry, airport spokeswoman.

Travelers can expect more airport angst if they're not prepared and don't arrive in plenty of time to make their flights, said Gentry and US Airways, which has its biggest hub in Charlotte.

Officials said Sunday's delays and lines that spanned the width of the terminal, from domestic to international check-ins, had to do with heavy passenger load and bad weather -- storms that started in the morning and moved into the Southeast, not because of a lack of airline staffing.

"Pretty much everywhere south of the Washington, D.C., area had a lot of thunderstorms," said Laura Brown, spokeswoman for Federal Aviation Administration.

Sunday's storms resulted in 35 weather-related delays at the Charlotte airport, Brown said. Of those, 18 were ground stops, where the FAA prohibited flights from taking off for Charlotte. The rest were arrival delays -- flights that got into Charlotte more than 15 minutes late.

"That contributed to the fact that it was a busy day. We were completely prepared," said Phil Gee, spokesman for US Airways.

Gee said the airline looks five days out at how many passengers are traveling and adjusts staffing accordingly. The airline typically increases ticketing staffing on heavy days, because that is where airport bottlenecks occur. US Airways said Monday that it had 35 ticketing agents working Sunday, seven more than what's considered full capacity. Sunday, the airline told the Observer it had a full staff working in Charlotte.

"All the aviation industry groups have been telling people that summer travel is going to be very heavy," said Gentry.

Gentry also noted that last weekend's crowds looked more like those that flock to the airport on holidays than any other day of the year. On Sunday, 19,113 travelers passed through security checkpoints at the airport, compared with 18,034 the day before Thanksgiving last year. On Friday, that traveler count was even higher at 19,941.

Across the industry, airlines are reporting heavier passenger volume. US Airways says its planes on average were 79.9 percent full last month, up from 77.2 percent the same time last year.

Gentry and US Airways' Gee urged passengers, especially this summer, to arrive in plenty of time to navigate long check-in lines. They recommended arriving at least two hours ahead of time for domestic and international flights.

But some passengers interviewed Monday at the Charlotte airport didn't seem inclined to allow that much time or to change their habits this summer.

Carolyn Brown of Washington, who traveled to Charlotte with her daughter Teylor on Monday, said she won't be getting to the airports any earlier than what's normal for her.

"When you don't have bags you can do it in an hour. When you have bags, hour and a half," Brown, 38, said.

That might not hold this summer, warned Gentry and Gee. Travelers across the country are going to spend more time looking for parking amid the summer bustle, they said. Over the weekend, Charlotte airport parking spilled into the overflow lots, Gentry said.

"We say get to the airport lobby two hours early," Gee said. "Parking is not part of what we do."

What This Means for Travelers

The air travel industry says this summer is going to be the busiest since 2000. Want to avoid long lines and be sure to catch your flight? Arrive to the airport lobby -- not just the parking decks -- at least two hours ahead of time for domestic and international flights, said Phil Gee, spokesman for US Airways.

Staff writer Megan Ward contributed.