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What are TSA agents doing now that hardly anyone is flying?

Free time and appreciative flyers: The coronavirus has changed airports for the TSA.

A TSA agent in a breathing mask working in an empty airport, March 12, 2020. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Jasmine, a 21-year old Transportation Security Administration agent at Los Angeles International Airport, says that for the first time ever, her job is easy. The coronavirus has laid siege to the nation’s airports, Southwest’s planes are only 20 percent full, and the security lines that used to snake through Jasmine’s terminal are a thing of the past. Today, she says, any traveler willing to brave the pandemic can receive express service at the metal detector, simply because there isn’t anyone else competing for the same spot.

Jasmine, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym to protect her privacy, tells me that even though her work responsibilities have dwindled, her hours haven’t been cut. TSA is a function of Homeland Security and therefore an arm of the federal government — the airport’s restaurants, bars, newsstands, and massage parlors have all shuttered in the face of the coronavirus, but nobody working security has been laid off. That’s created a unique environment. Herding thousands of people through a choke point at a major airport is a profoundly stressful experience, but now Jasmine spends more time hanging out with her fellow TSA agents than she does reminding people to take off their shoes.

LAX is at the front line of international travel, and there are moments where Jasmine is worried about her exposure to the pandemic. Lately, though, she says that going to work has been kinda fun. We talked about that, as well as the new cleaning regimens TSA has adopted to keep the checkpoints sanitized, and what it’s like to clock in and out at a ghost town.

When did things start to get weird at the airport for you?

Things have been really slow for about two weeks now. Our numbers have just been slowly decreasing. It’s super weird because we’re so used to constant rush. Now it’s literally, like, 10 people an hour, it’s crazy.

What impact does that have on the airport environment? I imagine it feels so different.

It is different. LAX used to see millions of people every day, and now it’s nobody. Our procedures that we have to do every day haven’t changed. Everybody that comes through says the same thing, how weird it feels. We don’t really get thanks for our job. But now a lot of people that come through have been like, “Thank you, thank you.” That to me is the weirdest part.

Why do you think customers are more appreciative now?

It was when the shutdown happened. TSA agents have such a bad reputation. It’s nice to be [appreciated] because a lot of people think our jobs are not important. But now everyone is trying to get back to their family, and I think that’s why they’re more appreciative. Because if it wasn’t for us, nobody would be going anywhere. People don’t understand that the things that we do aren’t to bother anyone. It’s to keep people safe.

Are you all still working full-time? Or has anyone had their hours cut?

We’re all still working full-time. We were just given a third day off, but that day is paid.

So they’re still paying you, while they’re realizing that when there are 50 people flying every day, they don’t necessarily need the full TSA staff there.

Correct, yes.

Is your job less stressful now that nobody is at the airport?

Absolutely; I feel like I’ve been getting to know my coworkers a lot more. At this point, I think we’re just messing around. There really isn’t a whole lot for us to do. Since it’s still a full amount of staff, there’s so many of us, and we don’t have anything going on. Lately I’ve been waking up super energized to go to work. I’m just hanging out with my friends at this point.

So your job has gotten easier?

I think it has. There’s nobody here. We complain about our job because people make it hard for us, but now it’s just freedom.

How has that affected the restaurants and bars at LAX?

I was told a lot of those people have had their hours cut. The duty-free stores are closed. I work in Terminal 6, which has Alaska [Airlines] and [Air] Canada, and there are only two restaurants open. Everything else is closed. The people who work with passengers in wheelchairs have had their hours cut. Just recently, I saw one of them pushing two people at a time, because so many people are home. It’s really unfortunate.

Are you worried about domestic flights going on lockdown?

They already have suspended a ton of flights. Just yesterday, I had a friend post a picture of the board, and there’s a ton of canceled flights. I have a buddy who works in Atlanta and he said that all the JFK flights are suspended. I don’t worry about my job because I know the airport would never close. They can’t just lay off people like that. But for a lot of other people, it’s kinda trickling down.

Have you been worried about catching coronavirus at work?

It is a worry. There are a lot of people who have it but don’t know that they have it. That is a little scary. From my understanding, the customs at LAX aren’t screening people for it. So a lot of people come right from customs, right to me, and they get screened through our process. It’s crazy to know they’re not getting screened. I’m not too crazy worried, but there’s that “what if?”

What are you doing to keep the TSA area clean and sterile?

Our management gave us a sheet, and every two hours they have a few of us step off the floor, and the entire checkpoint is sterilized. All the tables, the machines that we use. We’re always wearing gloves. It’s a checklist. Everything we touch, everything we use, we wipe it down.

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