DIA’s new West Security Checkpoint is saving travelers time, officials say. But busy days are on the horizon.

Fresh off visiting one of his daughters in Colorado and on his way to see another in Chicago, Oliver Coolidge got his first up-close look at Denver International Airport‘s new West Security Checkpoint last month.

The state-of-the-art screening area opened in the northwest corner of the airport’s Level 6 in early February, replacing the smaller, dated North Security Checkpoint on the floor below it.

Asked for his review after passing through one of the checkpoint’s 17 tech-laden screening lanes, the 74-year-old Coolidge took a neutral position.

“I don’t know if it’s better or not,” said Coolidge, a TSA PreCheck customer. “It doesn’t seem that much faster.”

A few lanes over, Lakewood resident Biz Schaugaard — who also has PreCheck — raved about her breezy security experience: “Actually, it was awesome. We just zipped through no problem at all.”

Transportation Security Administration and airport officials know that passenger viewpoints will vary — especially at DIA, the sixth busiest airport in the world when accounting for people hopping on connecting flights. But after more than four months of operations, early data suggests the West Security Checkpoint is delivering on its promise of speeding things up for travelers making their way to their flights.

Since it opened, officials have seen a roughly 30% decrease in average passenger wait times at the airport’s main South Security Checkpoint compared to the same period last year. That’s a drop from 15½ minutes to 10½,  DIA spokeswoman Courtney Law said.

Wait times at the small checkpoint on the bridge that connects the terminal with Concourse A have fallen by more than 50%, from roughly 10 minutes to under five minutes. Those decreases come despite a 5% increase in passenger traffic over the same period, Law said.

The average wait time at the west checkpoint so far is also just under five minutes, Law said.

According to TSA data, the new west checkpoint handled 45.5% of the more than 3.9 million passengers who passed through security at DIA in April and May. The now-removed north checkpoint typically handled about 35% of the airport’s departing passengers, according to Law.

“It was an important milestone for many reasons,” Law said of the shimmering row of scanners and conveyor belts. “It added really necessary additional capacity to our security checkpoints. We went from 36 lanes to 44 lanes.”

The checkpoint’s opening comes six years into DIA’s $2.1 billion terminal renovation project. Relocating security checkpoints to the building’s top floor was always one of the project’s primary objectives. But the work has been impeded by significant delays, including the city’s messy divorce with the original contractor on the project and multiple changes in its planned scope.

Now that the west checkpoint is finally humming along, the former north checkpoint has been removed to make way for the next phase of the project. That involves construction crews expanding the floor area of the northeast corner of Level 6 to make room for the future East Security Checkpoint.

After that screening area is completed and open — something Law says is on track to happen before the end of 2025 — the South Security Checkpoint and Bridge Checkpoint will also be removed, leaving just the two new checkpoints on the top floor.

The new West Security Checkpoint at Denver International Airport, as seen on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

New tech and some familiar challenges

DIA’s improved efficiency doesn’t just come from having more lanes. Those often don’t all operate at the same time anyway as TSA balances passenger needs with employee breaks and training, officials said.

The technology at the new screening area plays a part.

Each lane of the west checkpoint features bag scanners with 3-D imagining capabilities. Those allow passengers to leave their laptops and toiletries in their carry-on bags. Each lane has an automatic conveyor belt with room for three passengers to put their items in bins at a time. Updated body scanners also smooth out the process and boost efficiency, officials said.

“I can tell you that having an entire checkpoint with all that uniform equipment is great for standardization,” TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said in an interview. “That’s not true even at the South Security Checkpoint. Different lanes may have different scanners for bags and you may get different instructions from agents.”

It’s a generalization, Dankers admitted, but she likes to think of the west checkpoint as a “niche” security area with more lanes dedicated to serving people with PreCheck and Clear, or who have accessibility and functional needs, and other special designations like active duty members of the military or badged employees.

“If you’re in one of these special categories that is where you would go,” Dankers said.

The west checkpoint does have lanes for passengers going through standard screening protocols and the south checkpoint has lanes for PreCheck and Clear customers, so most travelers have options.

Two specific groups, Clear members who also have PreCheck and travelers who made an appointment through the airport’s free DEN Reserve program, must go through the west checkpoint. Designated lines for those passengers start at the checkpoint entrances near Door 600 and Door 606 on the west side of the terminal building.

The rollout of the new screening area hasn’t been without hiccups.

On a Saturday in February, just a few weeks after the checkpoint opened, passengers reported running into some of the long waits and headaches that have dogged DIA in recent years. Those headaches were exacerbated by the airport’s website providing inaccurate wait-time projections, suggesting passengers might only have to stand in line for a few minutes to pass through PreCheck lanes at the airport’s main south checkpoint when actual waits were much longer.

The west checkpoint is also less visible than the south and former north checkpoints on the main floor of the airport’s Great Hall.

Passengers coming in from the west parking areas and drop-off lanes need to walk past the United Airlines check-in counters and turn left to find the entrance to the checkpoint’s standard screening lanes. The location adds another wrinkle to navigating the terminal building that remains checkered with temporary construction walls as the renovation project trudges forward.

“It’s been a little confusing,” said Maria Vecchione, a Boston resident who went through the new checkpoint last month with her husband and infant son. “The way things are marked is just a little bit unclear. West, east, up, down — I had to ask a few times. Usually, I know how to navigate airports pretty well.”

Travelers use the West Security Checkpoint at Denver International Airport in Denver on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

DIA’s busiest days are to come

The added capacity and efficiency the checkpoint has brought to DIA were helpful over a busier-than-ever Memorial Day weekend.

Between Friday, May 24 and Tuesday, May 28, TSA agents screened 372,701 travelers at DIA, Dankers said. That was an 8% increase over the 344,327 people the agency screened at the airport over the five-day Memorial Day travel period in 2023.

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Perhaps more illustrative of growing passenger demand, that total was almost 7% higher than the 384,696 passengers who went through DIA security over Memorial Day weekend in 2019 before the pandemic upended growth trends, according to data Dankers provided.

The TSA is joining major airlines in projecting that this summer will be the busiest period of air travel on record.

On May 24, the agency counted 2,951,859 people who passed through security checkpoints nationwide, breaking a record set last Nov. 26, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

The single business day in DIA history was July 16 last year, when 88,683 passengers passed through checkpoints, Dankers said.

The coming Fourth of July travel period is expected to be the next big test of DIA’s efficiency. And more tests loom. The airport is projected to serve more than 100 million passengers a year by 2030.

Dankers defers to standard advice when it comes to air travel: arrive early, be prepared and expect the unexpected.

The West Security Checkpoint may be designed to be faster, but, ultimately, she said, “It’s as fast as people are.”

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