A partial shutdown of the U.S. government is now into its 25th day and with no end in sight, there’s now the real concern of a serious threat being posed to aviation safety and security. The shutdown is already the longest in history and while ‘essential’ government employees like airport security personnel and air traffic controllers are expected to still turn up for work, they’re doing so without pay. Absenteeism is on the rise and so too are delays at TSA security checkpoints across the country.
The situation has now got so bad that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which is one the busiest airport’s in the world, is now warning passengers of delays of up to three hours to clear airport security. And in new figures released by the Transport Security Administration (TSA), the airport took the brunt of security delays yesterday with a maximum wait time coming in at an agonizing 88 minutes for standard screening, while TSA PreCheck wait times were sometimes taking as long as 55 minutes.
Other airports across the United States were also struggling as the TSA suffered a national unscheduled absenteeism rate of 6.8% on January 14th – up 4.3% on the same day in 2017. Wait times reached 28 minutes in Miami and Newark, while Honolulu recorded standard wait times of 29 minutes.
Certain TSA checkpoints in Miami (MIA), Houston (IAH), Washington, DC (IAD), and Atlanta (ATL) have already been closed, although the administration refuses to release specific call out information for fear that a terrorist could use such information to target an airport or airliner.
Delta has apparently already lost something in the region of $25 million as a result of the shutdown although that pales in comparison to the suffering that normal government employees are going through. Food banks have sprung up at airport’s across the United States, while a $500 bonus that the TSA managed to find for every frontline employee is unlikely to go far as the shutdown stretches on and 53,000 TSA staffers go without pay.
“Some airports are exercising contingency plans that ensure and maintain effective security due to call-outs and anticipated high-volume,” the TSA said in a new statement released January 15th. The agency also maintains that 99.1% of passengers waited less than 30 minutes to clear security across the country.
But there are fresh doubts about how effective that screening is. The TSA has frequently come in for criticism for failing internal testing and the recent case of a woman accidentally taking a loaded gun onto a Tokyo-bound Delta Air Lines plane from Atlanta will do little to allay fears that the shutdown is adversely affecting aviation security (a TSA spokesperson says the shutdown was not to blame).
The fear that airport security has been compromised is now so bad that flight attendants are talking about refusing flights over safety concerns. That’s not a policy being pursued by the major flight attendant unions (yet) but the Association of Flight Attendants have been very vocal about the need to end the shutdown – saying it has “serious concerns over safety, security, and workforce hardships”.