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A guide to air travel during the government shutdown

How flights and security lines are being affected.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As the longest government shutdown in US history continues, Americans are restructuring their travel plans. National parks are either closed, trashed, or both, museum doors remain shut, and some people have even had to reschedule their weddings.

But the place where perhaps the greatest number of people are feeling the effects of the partial shutdown is at the airport, which is stressful even when functioning at full capacity.

Transportation Security Administration agents are deemed “essential” employees and therefore must report to work even when they aren’t guaranteed a paycheck, and since they haven’t been getting paid, many are calling out sick. According to TSA, unscheduled absences of TSA agents reached 6.8 percent on January 14 and 6.1 percent on the 15th, significantly higher than what they were on these same days last year. The lack of staffing has led to both security and convenience concerns for flyers. Here are answers to a few questions you might have if you plan to take a trip sometime soon.

How is the shutdown affecting agents?

TSA agents make up 51,000 of the 420,000 federal employees who are deemed “essential,” and while they will be paid for their work eventually, they have no clue when exactly that day will come.

According to WNYC, the TSA is one of the lowest-paying federal agencies; the typical starting salary of an agent is $17,000 (other estimates say it’s closer to $25,000). Many agents may not be able to afford child care, or they may be finding cash-paying jobs while the government is shut down, as the last regular paycheck was not sent.

And with President Trump declaring that the shutdown could last for “months” or even “years,” it’s easy to see why many are calling out or looking for other options. On January 11, the TSA announced that it would provide a day’s worth of pay to those who were on duty the day the shutdown was announced, plus a $500 bonus for working over the holiday season. As of the evening of January 16, however, no employees have received the bonus and some haven’t gotten their full day’s worth of pay. If this money ever arrives, it may help with the collective $438 million worth of mortgage and rent payments unpaid federal employees owe this month, but it still isn’t much.

Is airport security worse?

Although TSA spokesperson Michael Bilello tweeted, “security standards remain uncompromised at our nation’s airports,” some alarming information has suggested otherwise.

On January 2, 11 days into the shutdown, a Delta Airlines passenger took a loaded gun through security at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and onto a Tokyo-bound flight. The passenger, who claimed they simply forgot the firearm was in their bag, discovered the gun and alerted the authorities, who met them in Japan when the plane landed.

About 5 percent of TSA employees nationwide did not report to work on the day of the incident, but Bilello says the breach of security had nothing to do with low staffing or the shutdown; it happened, he said, because “standard procedures were not followed.” According to TSA, in 2017, 3,957 firearms were recovered in carry-on bags at American airports and 84 percent of them were loaded.

Although this specific case is both extreme and murky, president of the national TSA employee union Hydrick Thomas told CNN that the number of TSA callouts “will definitely affect the flying public who we [are] sworn to protect.”

On January 14, one out of every 13 airport screeners (employees who screen passengers and luggage at security checkpoints) nationwide didn’t come into work. According to CNN’s sources, the screeners will likely do fewer random pat-downs, bag inspections, and other screenings. That could create a potential security vulnerability — an ironic, if potentially dangerous, situation given that the root cause of the shutdown is a fight over people coming into the country.

Are airport lines longer?

Short answer: maybe. Although it depends on the airport, many major hubs have reported longer lines. “While national average wait times are within normal TSA times of 30 minutes for standard lanes ... some airports experienced longer than usual wait times,” TSA said in a statement.

At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta on January 15, travelers waited more than an hour in security lines. And at Dallas Love Field Airport, travelers waited 44 minutes.

Some airports have closed terminals due to lack of staffing and are filtering more travelers through fewer checkpoints. The George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston closed a checkpoint in Terminal B due to low staffing, funneling those passengers to terminals C and E. Over the weekend, Miami International Airport closed checkpoints in Terminal G and diverted passengers to other terminals, also citing low staffing.

Last week at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, employees and flyers were confronted with “endless lines,” ABC News reported. At Terminal C, which houses Delta, passengers waited 90 minutes in security lines. A similar situation arose at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which was already dealing with a TSA agent shortage.

Are flights getting delayed or canceled?

Not yet. Flight delays may be caused by winter storms across the Midwest, but so far, the government shutdown has not led to widespread delays or cancellations. Southwest Airlines was supposed to start flying to Hawaii early this year, but the shutdown has kept the company from pursuing that route.

There is, however, potential for future delays because of air traffic controllers. Air traffic controllers are also essential employees, and therefore have also been working without paychecks. If they start calling in sick, the government may have to limit the amount of air traffic, but it hasn’t come to that yet.

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