Described as a once "sleepy" airport, officials now emphasize that people should arrive at least two hours before their flight.
EGLIN AFB — As the summer travel season gets under way, long lines and missed flights are causing headaches for some travelers at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, commonly known as VPS.
The airport, which Bloomberg recently dubbed the “fastest growing airport in the United States,” has only eight gates but has added at least 12 routes in the past year to bring its total number of cities to 27. It has seen an 18 percent increase in the number of travelers so far this year, and 2017 saw an almost 28 percent increase in travelers from 2016.
But it appears the airport’s rapid growth, coupled with enhanced security screenings at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, has frustrated at least some passengers who missed or nearly missed flights because of longer-than-expected wait times.
Jessica Courtwright, who lives in Austin, Texas, and traveled to Destin this past weekend, arrived at VPS on Monday at 6:30 a.m. for her 7:30 a.m. flight back to Austin. She said check-in was a “breeze,” but waiting in line at the TSA checkpoint was a different matter.
“It looked like they had two lanes, but really they were only using one,” she said of the security lanes. “The line grew so long that they handed me a slip to monitor the wait times.”
She said she was in the line for about 45 minutes and was still there when her flight was supposed to leave. She thought she was going to miss her flight, but a woman from the airline came out and asked how many people were waiting for that flight. Five people raised their hand.
“They held the flight,” Courtwright said. “It was obvious that it was a common problem.”
Okaloosa County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, who also sits on the commission's Aviation Board, said constituents have raised concerned about missing flights and longer wait times.
“Having been here for over 30 years, we used to have a sleepy little airport and we were spoiled,” she said. “You could get there 45 minutes in advance, leisurely go through the checkout and sit in the holding area and then board, and you had plenty of time. But people need to know that now that we have all these expanded flights, it’s essential to get to the airport two hours in advance.”
In 1998, the airport was seeing about 600,000 passengers traveling in and out. By 2017 that number had nearly doubled to a record 1,134,209 passengers.
This year looks to be on track to break records again, according to County Airports Director Tracy Stage.
“May 17th was ... the busiest day in the 60-year history of VPS” with a total of 5,032 passengers, he said in an email to the Daily News on Tuesday. “That said, each day since has trumped the previous and we continue to climb in passenger numbers.”
Stage said the VPS was expected to have a record 5,498 passengers on Thursday.
But the airport's massive growth has come with apparent growing pains.
Courtwright said when she was in line Monday she overheard a security guard telling people that as far as lines go, “this is a good day.”
“He said it was actually going fast compared to the other days,” she said. “So I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to know what the wait normally is.’ ”
Ketchel said the increased foot traffic has led to “bottlenecking” in the TSA lines. Combined with the agency's newly-implemented screening rules for carry-on baggage, the lines have gotten longer and longer.
“People are missing their flights because they don’t realize, even though we’ve tried to get the word out in many ways, that they need to do pre-check and they need to get there two hours early,” she said.
The TSA announced in May that it was implementing stronger carry-on screenings at all U.S. federal airports, including VPS. The screenings include requiring passengers to place all personal electronics larger than a cellphone in bins for X-ray screenings, and having some travelers separate items from carry-on bags such as foods and powders.
Ketchel and Stage said TSA is in the process of installing a third screening lane that's expected to open June 19.
“The TSA has seen this problem and they've given us another gateway to process passengers safely so that we can speed up the process,” Ketchel said.
Stage said he believed VPS can “absolutely handle” the growth it’s experiencing, adding that in the past two-and-a-half years it has added 300 new jobs, including passenger ambassadors to help facilitate the crowds and curbside assistants to help people get in and out of the airport safely.
“We are incredibly excited about the growth and the economic impacts that this growth brings,” he said. “It’s well worth the growing pains.”