Passengers Missed Flights in Denver Because Security Queues Stretched 2-4 Hours; TSA Doesn’t Pay Attention to Weather Forecasts

Denver security lines can be among the worst in the country on a normal day. Peak holiday travel days aren’t normal days.

Via Reid F. the TSA didn’t forecast the volume of travel in Denver the Monday after Christmas. And weather delays meant that flight times bunched up. The TSA didn’t adjust staffing for either event. And that meant lines of 2 to 4 hours to clear the checkpoint.

Airport spokespeople apologized to frustrated travelers because of the massive wait times that began Monday night and went on through the morning that caused passengers to miss their flights. DIA tweeted that heavy security wait times were due to holiday traffic and blamed TSA for poor staffing levels at the security checkpoints.

Only one security line was open late at night. TSA “(T)housands (S)tanding (A)round” used to refer to the agency’s employees themselves, not the passengers.

The airport’s website showed a 90-minute wait just after midnight. However, some travelers told Denver7 that they had waited up to four hours to get through the security screening area and because of that, they missed their flights.

By late Tuesday, wait times were down to about a half-hour but many reported waiting in long lines at airline customer service counters to rearrange flights once they made their way into the terminals.

…TSA spoke with Denver7 early Tuesday and denied reports that wait times were three to four hours. A TSA spokesman said the security line wait was, on average, about to 2 hours max and blamed bad weather across the country for the delays.

The airport, though, disagrees with TSA’s assessements reporting “extended wait times at the TSA checkpoints of up to three hours.”

The crux of the problem is that the TSA doesn’t schedule staff based on changes in airline schedules and doesn’t use weather forecasts in scheduling either.

TSA spokesman Mark Howell said TSA staffs are based on projected number of passengers but when weather-delayed flights get pushed into the overnight hours, or if several later flights are added to compensate for the holiday demand, it can cause backup problems, as it did in Denver.

…The TSA admitted it did not anticipate the volume of travelers that had passed through overnight and was not aware of the added flights.

Passengers arriving at the airport two hours ahead of time were missing flights, but the TSA deflects blame “Travelers should contact their air carrier prior to proceeding to the airport, and schedule plenty of time to account for road conditions, parking and airport congestion.” (As though ‘road conditions’ or ‘parking’ were the crux of the problem — and only one security line open gets described as ‘airport congestion’.)

Even accounting for what I think of the TSA in general, it amazes me that the TSA doesn’t account for peak holiday schedules or weather forecasts in staffing.

Although in fairness the TSA was short staffed, having fired screeners who conspired to identify attractive male passengers to be sexually groped.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] Denver airport has been a TSA screening nightmare for years it’s one of the first places that convinced me I needed CLEAR and not just PreCheck. They’re planning to add more security lanes and TSA sys they’ll staff the lanes… but probably not before the holidays. Of course it doesn’t help that TSA doesn’t staff based on changes in airline schedules and doesn’t use weather forecast…. […]


  1. Denver is the only airport I’ve ever missed a flight due to security line issues, this was before pre-check though. I’ve seen the line wrap completely around the airport.

  2. I know it’s not a big airport but CHO has big problems in the morning. We’re talking about an airport with maybe 15 commercial flights per day and they can’t figure out how to not have a 45 minute wait at 5am? It’s amazing they don’t realize that 50% of the entire day’s enplanements occur before 7am and schedule accordingly.

  3. The passengers who missed their flights have only themselves to blame. THEY did not take into account that they were traveling during peak holiday time nor the delays caused by weather that were widely reported. Their time was too valuable to get to the airport early in case there were delays, but they had plenty of time to add to the problem while rescheduling their missed flights.

  4. TSA should tell the airport and airlines to advise them of any anticipated, out-of-the-ordinary spikes or lulls in traffic. Problem solved.

  5. Of course this is the fault of the passengers! Everyone knows you are required to be at the airport at least four hours in advance of all domestic flights. Just because irresponsible passengers failed to plan doesn’t mean the TSA has to accommodate them. Remember, everything changed on 9-11. This is not the America of our grandparents.

  6. @Sam – I honestly don’t believe that you’d show up more than 4 hours before your flights, even in weather and holiday traffic. If these PAX missed their flights because the roads were bad or they couldn’t find parking and then had limited time for security it’s one thing but it’s insane to think that someone should plan for a 3 hour wait just to enter the Terminal! You must work for a hospitality company associated with that airport if you actually think that a 3 hour wait is OK. AND to see that kind of wait overnight.

    Guess I should quit laughing at my parents for arriving at the airport 4 hours before their flight.

  7. @Sam,

    I’m assuming you’re just playing devils advocate, and you’re not really as…dickish…as your comment makes you sound. If you’re actually blaming passengers for not getting to the airport 5 hours in advance of a domestic flight (4 hour security wait, plus check-in, etc.), in the middle of the night, I sincerely hope that you miss every single flight you try to take in 2016 where you don’t show up 5 hours prior to departure. Please let us know the outcome.

  8. The mind boggling thing is the TSA claimed to have no knowledge of the midnight bank of holiday flights. These flights had been scheduled for months! #SMH

  9. You should learn from your parents. You are in for some painfull missed flights if you don’t leave 4 hours. I have life to date flown FF miles in excess of 8 mil. Showing up 4 hours before flight time usually means I wait for 2.5 to 3 hours, but 2 or 3 times a year, boarding is already in process when I arrive at the gate.

  10. Denver is tough if you don’t have PreTrip to begin with, so yesterday is no surprise. I give myself an extra hour when flying out of DIA compared to other airports.

    On another note , My wife and I were flying through ORD yesterday from NRT on JAL, but connecting on UA to RIC. While I have Pre Trip, my wife does not as she fly’s once a year when we go to Japan to visit her family. After getting our boarding passes I quickly checked her’s & thank goodness she was given Pre Trip. I almost felt bad walking past the TSA line that stetched past the United Express check-in area in terminal 2. Their were zero people in front of us in the Pre Trip line.

  11. It would make more sense of all of Sam’s flights were intercontinental , if they were mid con or transcon , he’d been waiting more than in flight!

  12. DIA is a huge pain. The way the airport is laid out (not to mention how far it is from the actual city!) is not efficient. The fact that you have to take a airtrain to concourse A, B and C (or a verrrrry long walk to A) and that there are only two security lines means no matter what you’re standing in line forever. I’ve only flown there once since I had Pre-Check and it wasn’t that bad. But even getting TO security is a long way – you have to go down the escalators and all the way around. Thumbs down for whoever designed the layout of this airport. At least other airports have terminal specific security lines rather than dumping everyone through one big line.

  13. @Sam, stop being such a dolthead.

    There is no way for passengers to foresee a problem with security lines at the airport, especially if it is a slow period (night) and the roads and weather in that area (Denver) are good.

    It’s ridiclous to expect pax to show up four hours before a domestic flight, “just in case,” especially when airlines request pax be a the airport for two hours preflight on domestic trips.

    There’s no excuse for the TSA management to not anticipate heavier traffic during the holiday season. Period.

  14. @Sam, congratulations on having so much free time! Could you help me out with getting some things done? Is love to have that kind of time to do expense reports, answer emails, book travel …

  15. There is no way to forsee a flat tire, or an accident on the roadway, or Adela’s at the car retal center, or the need to use remote parking, etc. etc., but the majority of the passengers allowed sufficient time and made it to their planes. The only people claiming a 4 hour TSA delay are those who cut it too close. People have to stop blaming others for their poor planning. Where I work we had an employee who showed up 15 to 20 minutes late for 3 days in a row blaming traffic. HR advised her to find work closer to home. Put the blame where it belongs.

  16. @Barry

    How on earth does your wife get Pre check with no Global Entry, Pre Check application, or elite status? Were you both on the same PNR?


  17. @askmrlee

    I do not have Global Pre Check, so we have to go through the normal immigration steps on arrival from Japan. Since our JAL & United flights were on seperate itinerarys, we needed to check in at ORD like we were starting there. I have to assume she was given Pre Trip since she was attached to my itinerary. Note: She was given Pre Trip on the outbound portion to Japan from RIC which gave me hope even though it wasn’t as big of a deal with shorter lines.

  18. Sam and Tom must be TSA clerks because no one else would lay the blame at the feet of passengers like the TSA does.

  19. You have to be a special kind of person to be a TSA apologist. Would love to look inside Sam’s head.

  20. @Sam Different strokes for different folks. I respect your decision to arrive 4 hours early but I would never be so cautious. Here in lovely SAN, I uber from my house ~1 hr prior to departure 🙂 Everyone has a different level of risk.

  21. “Dad Suggests Arriving At Airport 14 Hours Early”

    Planning for his family’s Saturday evening flight to Florida, local dad Walter Holbrook suggested arriving at the airport at least 14 hours early, sources confirmed.

    “The plane leaves at 6:45 at night, and it takes a little while to park the car and get through security, so we should plan to get there no later than 4:45 a.m.,” said Holbrook, adding that it would probably be smart to add an extra “eight to nine hours” to the car commute in case of traffic.

    “That should give us more than enough time to print our boarding passes, check in luggage, and get settled at the gate. Then we’ll have 10 hours to get food if anyone’s hungry.” At press time, Holbrook had reportedly revised the arrival time to 3:45 a.m. “just to be safe.”

  22. There is this new invention called a COMPUTER that is really good at algorithms and such. Get with it TSA! #PoorUX is so 2001 : )

  23. I can’t speak to this situation but I have more than once in the past six years used the United elite line at DEN instead of precheck because the precheck line was literally out the door. Last time I couldn’t see the end of the precheck line but I easily beat the person who was at the entry, let alone the hundreds of people behind them. I think the Denver TSA is absolutely ridiculous.
    That said, I fly out of Denver typically 2 or 3 times a month. I arrive 70 to 90 minutes and it’s just fine. I am there for work, work that (1) would never condone sitting in the airport for 4 hours and (2) work where everyone travels all the time. No one has ever missed a flight because of this and I would never allow our employees to waste time on the once-every-10-year chance the TSA line is 4 hours. We pay for global entry for a reason and it’s never 4 hours – someone who has flown 8 mn miles, give me a break. As my grandfather always says, if you haven’t missed a flight you’re spending too much time in an airport!

  24. I was on a Delta redeye from DEN to JFK on Monday night. Got in the security line at 11:03 pm and finally made it out the other end at 1:21 am. PreCheck was closed, and one of the two open lanes shut down about an hour into the wait.

    I doubt the wait was ever actually four hours long. In defense of the TSA agents who were on duty, they worked harder than any I’ve ever seen.

    The airport police showed up around midnight though, after a number of passengers started yelling obscenities at the TSA agents and threatened to rush the checkpoint.

  25. TSA is a pathetically managed organization. Spikes in customer traffic from weather and holiday travel are nothing new. They should be good at planning.

    I was at PHX at 8pm last night. The place was very busy but two of the four checkpoints were closed in Terminal 4. Approaching the closed B checkpoint, a guy in a suit loudly advising “everyone proceed to A… all flights are departing from A.” Really, my boarding pass says ‘B-14.’ I approach the guy and simply ask why its closed, given its one of the busiest travel seasons of the year? He was clearly one of those people who don’t like to be questioned and became very nasty with me. Who is he anyway? No uniform, just a brown suit covering. No ID badge…. nothing. Just an attitude. Is he TSA, Airport admin or…. the manager from one of the restaurants? Who knows and how would I know?

    So after proceeding to A checkpoint, Precheck is… you got it… closed. In every airport I have been to where Precheck is closed, they allow you to go thru the regular line with shoes on, computer and liquids removed. And thats the case the many times I have flown out of PHX this year. But not tonight. “You need to take your shoes off…” “But….?” “This is not a Precheck line.” “But all the other times…” “This is not a Precheck line and we don’t have proper scanners.” (SMH)

    The TSA creates their own problems. If they had to survive the same as any private company, they would be out of business.

  26. Sadly this is not a new occurrences at DIA, my daughter went to,school in Boulder and despite arriving at the airport 3 hours early at thanksgiving in 2011 she missed her flight and had to spend the night at the airport. However she was at the gate 13 minutes before flight time, am assuming the gate agents filled the flight and didn’t want to pay over sales or remove non revs.

  27. aeromusek – thanks for the report. Even the two hours you reported is absolutely absurd and insane.

    Not sure if applicable in this case, but I’ve always wondered in times of super long lines if airports would consider metering people through the checkpoint based on time of departure in order to spread the demand over a greater period of time.

  28. In other tsa news, I am a surgeon and recently arrived in Central America only to realize after unpacking my bag that TSA allowed me to board with not one but two scalpels and a pair of surgical scissors inadvertently in my carry on. Don’t worry, the drug sniffing dogs on arrival at customs were able to sniff out a week old apple in the bag…I really need to clean this thing out more often.

  29. @Amapas – dollars to donuts the suit you encountered was a TSA manager-type, who was angry that he had to be dealing with the public instead of hiding in his office where he could willfully ignore the chaos in the terminal. You should have asked to see his ID.

  30. @Susan Richart, thanks for the info. That makes sense because he was very bitter and angry. I wish I knew how to send feedback to TSA. I would definitely report this experience.

  31. The debate about whether the passengers are to blame boggles my mind, as if the problem here is lack of information about wait times. The implication is that as long as the passengers leave enough time, then two to four hour waits are acceptable.

    In my opinion, waits that long – even during peak travel days and times – are completely unacceptable. TSA needs to install sufficient infrastructure and provide better staffing to keep wait and processing times down.

  32. @swag, the official security wait time when I left for the airport AND when got in the line an hour and a half later (yeah, long drive) was 45 minutes, as reported by both the DIA website, the information display in the terminal, and the non-TSA airport employee directing people to the end of the queue (way back in baggage claim). Eventually these were revised to 90 minutes, but that is still significantly less than the 138 minutes I ACTUALLY spent standing in line.

    The TSA’s defence that “Travelers should contact their air carrier prior to proceeding to the airport” is incredibly tone-deaf. I did in fact connect with Delta on Twitter while waiting, and they had no idea what was going on. I thought it was amusing when Gary shared the criteria for being named ‘TSA’s Officer of the Year’ (, but after watching them close down to a single while a thousand people stood by sarcastically applauding, I am not surprised.

    Props to Frontier for being the only airline to send someone with a radio to shout real-time updates on flight delays.

  33. @aeromusek The irony in your experience is that if PreCheck had remained open, it would have reduced the long wait in the other lines. I see this frequently, PreCheck frequently closed at peak times and crazy long lines for the regular screening.

  34. @Amapas, indeed. I have PreCheck and was not pleased to discover that lane closed. I suppose 11 pm on a weeknight is not typically a ‘peak time’, but that is more proof that the TSA made a monumental mistake in their scheduling work.

    Of course…with only a single lane running, having PreCheck open wouldn’t have actually done anything.

  35. Newark (EWR) is just as bad. People were missing flights in the security line I was in on Dec 20th (which was the second security checkpoint I was told to go to after the main one wrapped through the check-in area). Intentionally slow and they were not using all available scanners. The TSA agents even told crying women in line that they should have gotten to the airport 4 hours ahead of time for a domestic flight (which for a 7am flight, not sure they would of let us in at 3am in the morn). Consistently, always awful at EWR (and JFK/LGA).

  36. Is it possible to know how long the security check is taking before leaving for the airport? Someone should make an app for that. Maybe Waze should try using real-time passenger feedback.

  37. This made the local news here in Denver. They’d show shots of a single TSA agent with another TSA agent sitting on a chair and “supervising”. Then two more standing behind them staring off into space. This is the epitome of government waste. It’s no wonder the country is nearing 20 TRILLION dollars of debt.

    This happened to us at SFO where the 1 TSA agent was only taking the premium passengers, and we waited in the regular line for 30mins before they took just 1 person from our line before exclusively taking premium passengers. And of course there was an army of TSA agents staring off into space. When asked why they couldn’t help they all said “we haven’t been trained to check IDs”. It really takes that much training to put a squiggle on a boarding pass?

  38. Once again, the TSA prove they are a joke.

    Let’s see…

    Do they catch weapons before they get air side? No.

    Do they use equipment that poses a risk to the traveling public? Yes.

    Do they engage in common sense practices to ensure they don’t unnecessarily delay passengers? No.

    But, by gosh, they sure help make people think their government is doing something. Right?


  39. Thanks Gary.
    A 31 minute max won’t help in cases like peak holidays, so I’ll just show up 4 hours before boarding to play it safe. That’s why lounges are desirable.

  40. Our son missed his flight due to the TSA snafu at Denver on 12/29/15. (He was interviewed on local TV.) As a result, the airline could not give him a seat to his destination until late on 1/1/16. He has a small business to run and hence rented a car at 6 in the morning to drive the 1600 miles back east which got him home two days earlier than the airline could. He incurred a rental car drop off fee of $500 and American has not yet said if they would charge him a $200 rebooking fee for the remainder of his unused ticket. Is there any recourse against TSA? The car rental company has offered a $100 good faith adjustment that has not yet been accepted or declined. Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  41. LOL, it’s the government. There is never any accountability or responsibility taken, and they most certainly will not reimburse you for anything. And the airline won’t do anything since the crappy TSA was outside their control.

  42. It is not the security I am upset with. It is other passangers. I am in the Army and have been flying at least three times a year for 12 years. To me its always the passangers that are not ready or don’t pay attention to the rules. How many people don’t have their boarding pass and ID ready or leave a bottle of water in their bag?

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