Inside the Delays, Drama, and Turmoil at the Austin Airport

Illustration by Pete Ryan.

Laura Pevehouse, an Austin communications consultant, took to the skies in May like millions of other travelers. She’d flown with her daughter di lei on a vacation in summer 2021 and visited Las Vegas for work, but she knew this trip might be different. An email from her airline advised Pevehouse to arrive three hours before her international flight as the airline industry reeled from widespread flight cancellations and delays caused by inclement weather, technical issues, and staff and pilot shortages. That didn’t even include the huge numbers of spring travelers expected to pass through Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) that month.

As it turned out, Pevehouse had no issues getting out of Austin. Getting back, however, turned out to be another story.

Starting with slow passport lines on June 1 at Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris, Pevehouse and her daughter faced one travel delay after another, including mechanical issues that stalled takeoff and bad weather that forced them to miss their connecting flight in Dallas. After being told that the in-person wait to rebook the flight would be at least four hours, they opted instead for a $ 344 rental car to get home in time for a wisdom teeth extraction appointment the next morning.

That experience has been typical for air travelers at ABIA this year, as COVID-weary crowds with a pent-up desire for travel — coupled with an exploding population — has led to unprecedented traffic. In May of this year, more than 2 million passengers traveled through ABIA, the most ever in one month. This surge wasn’t helped by instances like a much-publicized March log jam at the car rental garage, after a harried traveler simply abandoned their stalled vehicle at the drop-off curb. As others followed suit, a line of cars choked Presidential Boulevard causing a three-hour disruption. “We had never seen anything like it before,” says ABIA spokeswoman Sam Haynes.

To combat this record-breaking influx of fliers, in a year where more than 20 million people are expected to pass through Austin’s airport, ABIA has about 60 scheduled projects as part of an ambitious AUS 2040 master plan. It was originally created with the expectation of serving 33 million passengers a year by 2037, but as Haynes admits: “We’re going to reach that 30 million passenger number a lot sooner than predicted.”

Among the projects that returning fliers might notice are a new baggage system for outbound bags, a new TSA checkpoint that opened last winter, and a west terminal expansion that will open three new gates by summer 2025. Longer term, the plan calls for an entirely new concourse, the addition of even more new gates, and roadway and terminal expansions.

Going into the fall, Haynes says, the number of travelers should drop off, but there will be some significant dates to watch out for including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Oct. 24, the Monday after Austin’s annual F1 race at Circuit of The Americas. “F1 is typically our busiest single day of travel of the year,” Haynes says of the event, which even outpaces the most congested days of South by Southwest.

The travel spike of 2022 isn’t exclusive to Austin, or even the country, says Natalie Kloss-Biagini, founder and CEO of Travel Abundance, a luxury travel agency. Her clients di lei now expect more hand-holding than at any time prior to the pandemic. “We’ve been up in the middle of the night talking to clients in Europe for either missed transfers or missed flights or they can’t find their transfer driver,” she says. “It’s now 24/7 support when they’re traveling.”

In Europe this summer, flight cancellations, pilot shortages, and the massive 30 to 40 percent price increase on tickets caused groups like Travel Abundance to actually advise customers to delay vacations until the fall, if possible. “A lot of our suppliers would not take summer bookings,” says Kloss-Biagini, referring to hotels, drivers, tour guides, and other vendors they do business with. “I’ve never seen this in 15 years. I’ve never seen a supplier turn down a booking because they’re so full-up. “

Experts like Haynes and Kloss-Biagini both offer some of the same advice air travelers have been hearing for months: Arrive at least two-and-a-half hours prior to boarding times, look into TSA PreCheck or CLEAR as ways of speeding up your security-line experience, and consider purchasing a Global Entry pass (which costs $ 100 and speeds you through customs) if flying overseas.

Even with all that pre-planning, Kloss-Biagini says you can still expect a 50/50 chance that your flight itinerary will be modified, whether it’s a small delay or a total cancellation. “We have to remind our customers that the first thing they have to pack is patience,” Kloss-Biagini says. “They have to pack patience because something will change. “

The question for travelers closer to home is whether ABIA and its partner airlines will be able to handle the growth, or if flight delays, security-checkpoint congestion, and higher ticket prices will continue past summer. For that, Haynes provides a bleak assessment for anyone planning on a holiday escape: “We really don’t have off-season months anymore,” she says.

Just Plane Crazy

A travel bug resurgence has meant historic numbers passing through the terminals at ABIA.

20 million

Travelers expected to go through Austin-Bergstrom in 2022

17.65%

Percent increase from previous high in 2019

Oct. 25, 2021

ABIA’s single busiest day, when 35,298 passengers passed through its gates

34

Number of gates at ABIA, up from 25 with the completion of the airport’s last big expansion in 2019

90

Total number of nonstop destinations available from Austin-Bergstrom

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.