After the longest government shutdown in American history has seemingly ended, travelers should keep in mind that the shutdown was actually placed on a three-week hiatus.
Here’s an overview of how the shutdown affected airports and air travel, and what to do if it returns, courtesy of the vox.com.
How does the shutdown affect agents?
TSA agents make up 51,000 of the 420,000 federal employees who are considered “essential” staff. During a government shutdown, they do not receive their paychecks. 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). While they were to be paid for their work eventually, they did not know when, and this likely negatively impacted morale, on-the-job performance, and attendance.
Was airport security compromised?
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 likely did fewer random pat-downs, bag inspections, and other screenings. That created a potential security vulnerability — an ironic, if potentially dangerous, situation given that the root cause of the shutdown is a fight over border security.
A scary thought: 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 TSA spokesperson Michael Bilello tweeted during the shutdown, “security standards remain uncompromised at our nation’s airports,” the 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.”
Were airport lines longer?
Although it depends on the airport, many major hubs reported longer lines. The TSA stated, “While national average wait times are within normal TSA times of 30 minutes for standard lanes, some airports experienced longer than usual wait times.”
Some airports had to closed terminals due to lack of staffing and filtered 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. Miami International Airport closed checkpoints in Terminal G and diverted passengers to other terminals, also citing low staffing.
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.
Were flights getting delayed or canceled?
Flight delays may have been caused by winter storms, but in the end, the government shutdown led to widespread delays or cancellations. Southwest Airlines was supposed to start flying to Hawaii early this year, but the shutdown kept the company from pursuing that route. Hours-long delays and finally cancellations at LaGuardia were cited as major reasons why the government put the shut down on hiatus.
Air traffic controllers are also essential employees, and therefore have also been working without paychecks. Air traffic control, understaffed before the shutdown began, reached the point at which the government needed to reduce flight volumes, which caused carriers to cancel some flights. In the future, if the government shutdown occurs again, an extended shutdown could lead to entire airports cancelling flights, with only a “subset of the airports” running, said Bruce McIndoe, founder and president of global travel risk management firm WorldAware, formerly iJet.
The shutdown also stalled modernization efforts of the air traffic control system, he said. “The modernization efforts the FAA has put forward require constant and ongoing work, and this really takes those efforts off course,” said Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO. “When you put critical modernization efforts on the shelf for three weeks, it’s going to take months to ramp those efforts back up.”
What travelers can do
While there’s not much travel buyers can do beyond pressuring their elected officials to not allow another shutdown, they should allow more time to get through airports in case of disruptions, McIndoe said. Should it reach the point of flight cancellations, corporate travelers might look to defer trips when possible. However, he said putting travelers in cars instead of planes is not ideal, given the substantially higher risk of accidents in car travel versus air travel.