Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

After a pandemic-induced lull, passengers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport started returning last year, as seen in this September photo. With traffic now approaching levels of previous years, officials say travelers should be prepared for longer check-in times and take precautions.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is filling up with more travelers this year, with more than 4.8 million passengers boarding flights there in the past four months alone, according to a report published by the airport.

Due to the low volume of travelers at the height of the pandemic, getting through security and the preboarding process was quick and easy. But today, the process is a bit more difficult, according to Patricia Mancha, a media Transportation Security Administration spokesperson.

“During the pandemic, if anyone traveled, they saw no lines. It was a quick process. That’s not the case anymore,” Mancha said.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit American travelers hard in 2020 and early 2021. In addition to lockdowns and people’s health concerns over travel, the government issued bans on travel to countries such as Iran, China, the United Kingdom, Brazil, South Africa and, most recently, India.

According to Sky Harbor officials, 2020 had around 21 million travelers, compared to the more than 40 million who traveled through the airport in every other year in the decade.

For many people traveling through Sky Harbor, it is their first time going through the security process since the pandemic began. Mancha said many travelers have forgotten what the security and preboarding rules consist of, such as prohibited items in carry-on baggage.

Sky Harbor security has found a record number of prohibited items in carry-on baggage this year, including novelty blades, replica firearms, hiking sticks and stun guns.

“The most often used excuse that we get from people when we find a prohibited item is, ‘I didn’t know it was in my bag,’ or, ‘It’s my spouse’s bag,’ and, ‘I didn’t know this item was in there,’” Mancha said.

Mancha said that any item found that can be used as a makeshift weapon, including children’s toy weapons, can be confiscated.

“Some of the things we see, like a replica of a gun that is actually a lighter, or a toy gun, are all prohibited simply because they look like guns,” Mancha said. “We have a full range of items, such as a stun gun disguised as a flashlight, which we have seen a lot of lately, pepper spray and switchblades — all of which is allowed in your checked baggage, just not your carry on.”

Mancha said travelers have the option to “voluntarily abandon” prohibited items. Items that have been voluntarily abandoned by travelers are often put on display at Terminal Four.

Prohibited items are not the only rules travelers have to keep in mind when entering Sky Harbor.

Despite no statewide mask mandate in Arizona, the federal government requires masks on “planes, buses, trains and other forms of transportation” and in “airports and stations.” Sky Harbor requires travelers to wear face coverings at all times.

Heather Shelbrack, public information manager for Sky Harbor, said the federal mandate put in place by President Joe Biden in January applies to the airport.

“The federal mandate requires masks which cover both the mouth and nose for passengers, visitors and employees in the airport terminals, on commercial flights, on airport buses, onboard the PHX Sky Train and in the Rental Car Center,” Shelbrack said.

The TSA has compiled a list of items that are allowed and prohibited in both carryon or checked baggage on its website.

“Arrive early, have a plan and understand exactly what items you are wearing or bringing when going through the security checkpoint to avoid a secondary inspection,” Mancha said. “If you’re traveling with family or multiple people, make sure everyone does the same thing.”  

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