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The Shutdown Is Disrupting Travel at America’s Biggest Airports. And It’s Probably Going to Get Worse

5 minute read

Three weeks into the partial government shutdown, travelers at some of America’s busiest airports are feeling the squeeze – with longer security lines and even closed terminals – as some Transportation Security Agency (TSA) screeners begin to call in sick rather than show up to work without pay.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport advised fliers to arrive three hours early for their flights on Monday as average wait times topped one hour. At Miami International Airport, a security checkpoint was closed for hours on Saturday and Sunday.

Other big airports that haven’t experienced TSA sickouts are preparing for the problem to get worse. A spokesperson from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport said that officials have “contingency plans” prepared that they hope will mitigate the problem and keep security lines moving.

More than twice as many TSA agents called out sick on Monday compared to last year, according to the TSA. The TSA has assured workers that they will be paid after government funding is restored – but that won’t come until President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats break their impasse over Trump’s $5.7 billion demand for a border wall.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske has also promised to provide every officer with a $500 award, “in recognition of their hard work during yet another busy holiday travel season, maintaining the highest of security standards during an extraordinary period,” according to the TSA.

Jim Gregory, a TSA spokesperson, told TIME last week that while most security officers are professional and dedicated to the TSA’s mission, he did not “want to speculate” about whether more TSA employees will call out during the shutdown.

“But TSA employees are not some of the higher paid federally workers out there,” Gregory said. TSA agents earn about $30,000 per year on average, Gregory said.

“I don’t have a good crystal ball. All I can say is it does cause additional stress,” Gregory said. “The longer it goes on, the harder it is on these employees.”

Some of the other major impacts of the shutdown may not be as visible to passengers. About 3,300 FAA aviation safety workers have been sidelined, and air traffic controllers have sued the federal government for requiring them to work without pay.

On Jan. 3, a passenger was able to fly from Atlanta to Tokyo with a gun that TSA screeners missed. The agency said the security lapse was because “standard procedures were not followed,” not because of the shutdown.

For now, airports are urging travelers to arrive for check in earlier than usual and to monitor line wait times on airports’ websites, when they can.

Here’s what you need to know about changes and long wait times at airports across the country.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

So far, the airport that has seen some of the biggest effects of the partial government shutdown is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Wait times stretched for over an hour at the airport’s main checkpoint on Monday morning according to Elise Durham, the airport’s director of policy and communications.

Nearly 104 million passengers passed through Atlanta in 2017.

Durham acknowledged that Monday’s long wait times were caused by the shutdown.

“Mondays are typically very busy days at Hartsfield-Jackson, but this morning we did feed the impact of the federal shutdown more than we have thus far,” Durham said. “Fortunately, until today, we really hadn’t had any operational impact.”

Durham said that the airport had brought in more “customer engagement agents” to guide passengers. The airport also offered live music to soothe frustrated passengers at checkpoints.

Durham urged passengers to check wait times at ATL.com or our iFlyATL APP, and to allow three hours to clear airport security during domestic travel.

Miami International Airport (MIA)

Miami International Airport staff closed one of its six concourses after 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday “as a precaution in case TSA call-outs increased,” an airport spokesperson wrote in an email.

The spokesperson said that the concourse went back to normal operations on Monday, and was fully staffed. The airport was not experiencing above average wait times over the last few days.

“MIA and the TSA will continue to monitor checkpoint staffing levels and make adjustments as necessary,” the spokesperson wrote.

Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport has closed a terminal in response to “staffing issues” caused by the government shutdown, says Patrick Trahan, Houston Airport System’s director of communications. The airport has closed Terminal B and shifted passengers to Terminal C.

However, Trahan says that increased wait times at the airport have been “pretty minor.”

Over the past few days, wait times have gone up to about 20 minutes at peak travel times, Trahan says. According to Trahan, this is not significantly longer than a regular travel day. On a typical day, passengers can usually get through security in about 10 or 15 minutes, Trahan said.

Trahan said he was not sure when the airport will reopen the closed terminal.

Dulles International Airport (IAD)

Not all travel issues can be blamed on the government shutdown, however. Despite some reports that service disruption at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. was caused by TSA workers calling out sick, a spokesperson said that the delays were caused by another unforeseen event – the weather.

The FAA ordered the airport to a “ground stop” on Sunday night in response to a snow storm. The airport ultimately received about 10.6 inches of snow, says Metropolitan Washington Airports spokesperson Rob Yingling.

“The city was pretty much shut down yesterday,” Yingling says. He added that airport workers are frequently unable to make it to work during snowstorms.

Normal service resumed at around 12:30 p.m. today, Yingling says.

— Alejandro de la Garza contributed reporting.

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