TSA Checkpoint Waiting Times Soar as Staffing Shortages Spread

With TSA officers continuing to call in sick due to the government shutdown, air travelers experience hour-plus waits at security checkpoints.

TSA Checkpoint Waiting Times Soar as Staffing Shortages Spread

Security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta were more than an hour long, causing some travelers to miss flights on Monday, January 14.

Photo by John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

As the government shutdown in the United States enters its fourth week, an increasing number of TSA agents are failing to show up at airports around the country since they are being asked to work without pay.

On Monday, January 14, the TSA reported a national absence rate of 7.6 percent compared with 3.2 percent on a similar day in 2018. The TSA “sickout,” as it’s being called, has started to affect security checkpoint lines at airports across the country. At the world’s busiest airport—Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport—some travelers had to wait more than an hour at all three security checkpoints in the domestic terminal on Monday.

“It’s chaos out here,” passenger Vincent Smith told the Associated Press as he waited in a line that stretched back to the Atlanta airport’s baggage claim areas. “This line, I’ve been here about 15 minutes and it has moved 2 feet.”


There were at least six security lanes closed at domestic terminal security checkpoints in Atlanta reflecting staffing shortages as TSA officers have been working without pay since the federal shutdown began December 22, 2018.

Photo by John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Many TSA agents are calling out of work as a way to make ends meet instead of as a protest, one union official told CNN. For example, some need to stay home to save money on childcare, while others need to pick up extra shifts at their second jobs in order to pay bills, or simply can’t afford the gas to drive to their jobs.

From a friend: Just talked to a TSA Agent. Thanked him for being here during the shutdown. “I’m OK,” he said. “I have a Navy pension. My coworkers are calling in sick simply because they can’t afford the gas to drive to the airport since they haven’t been paid.” #ShutdownStories — Amy R. Turci (@AmyRTurci) January 5, 2019

The agency says it is working with airports and airlines across the country to consolidate operations and maximize its resources. TSA spokesman Jim Gregory also confirmed that security screeners have not and will not compromise or change their security procedures.

TSA says 99.1 percent of the 1.97 million people it screened throughout the nation on Sunday, January 13, waited less than 30 minutes in line, and 93.1 percent waited less than 15 minutes in line. However, Delta Air Lines had to have its own employees pitch in to help manage the long TSA lines in Atlanta. The airline, which is headquartered in Atlanta, recently reported an estimated $25 million loss in business because of fewer government employees and contractors traveling during the shutdown.

Atlanta’s airport spokesman Andrew Gobeil told the Associated Press that the long lines on Monday were due to a busy travel day combined with an unknown number of security lines being closed.


Customer Service representative Magda Lambo, center, directs travelers at security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Photo by John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

AFAR staffers who flew through New York’s JFK and LaGuardia Airports, as well as the Detroit Metro Airport and Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Puerto Rico reported average to shorter-than-average lines this past weekend.

However, a security checkpoint and ticket counter at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport’s Terminal B closed on Sunday, January 13, and will remain shuttered through Tuesday, January 15.
With an absence rate more than double its average, Miami International Airport closed one of its least busy concourses over parts of the weekend so that TSA agents could adequately staff its other security checkpoints. While Concourse G was open again on Monday, Miami airport officials said they would make any more adjustments as the shutdown continued.

To help understaffed airport checkpoints, TSA says it plans on moving officers around the country to alleviate local shortages.

As a gesture of appreciation, the Connecticut Airport Authority delivered lunch to our TSA, FAA and CBP partners. Thank you for your commitment to Bradley International Airport and our passengers. We appreciate you! pic.twitter.com/Gf1nRi5ALz — Bradley Intl Airport (@Bradley_Airport) January 15, 2019

In the meantime, airlines and individual aiports have started to do what they can to help TSA agents while they’re not being paid. For example, Tampa International Airport has set up a food pantry, provided bus passes, and worked with utility companies to help employees who are struggling with their bills. Southwest Airlines and the Connecticut Airport Authority have both been providing meals to TSA workers at Bradley International Airport in northern Connecticut. In a sign of solidarity, Canadian air traffic controllers have been sending pizzas to their counterparts in the United States, who as federal FAA employees are also working without pay during the shutdown.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article.

>> Next: How the Ongoing U.S. Government Shutdown Continues to Affect Travelers
Lyndsey Matthews is the Senior Commerce Editor at AFAR who covers travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.
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