Three of the East Coast’s busiest airports were seeing flight delays Friday because of staffing shortages related to the partial federal government shutdown, the Federal Aviation Administration announced.
The FAA said on its website that there were delays at LaGuardia, Newark and Philadelphia International Airport. Flights bound for LaGuardia from Philadelphia were being delayed by 41 minutes, the FAA said.
The air traffic snarls are the latest problem to hit airports struggling with a lack of staff during the shutdown, which is now on its 35th day.
Unions for air traffic controllers, airline pilots and flight attendants warned Thursday of a worsening safety crisis that’s “deteriorating by the day.”
Over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, 10% of TSA agents called out sick, the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement after the long weekend. This compares to a rate of 3.1% the same time last year. “Many employees are reporting they are not able to work due to financial limitations.”
Travelers tweeted complaints about the long lines resulting from staffing issues at airports across the U.S. over the weekend. Mary McGuire, a reporter in Minneapolis, MN, tweeted about “absolute mayhem” at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on Friday, Jan. 18.
TSA line at @mspairport is absolute mayhem this morning.
Here’s hoping we make it to California in time to see my little brother get married! 🤞✈️@WCCO#TSA#wcco#airportpic.twitter.com/aIzGLb3R3B
The TSA has dispatched extra screeners to airports in Atlanta, Ga., LaGuardia Airport, N.Y., and Newark, N.J., the Associated Press reported. A TSA spokesman told the AP that other airports might also receive additional help.
Throughout the country, other passengers similarly tweeted complaints about long TSA lines in recent days. TSA agents been working without pay since the government shut down on Dec. 21, with no end in sight — and that could lead to travel delays for passengers, said Christopher R. Bidwell, senior vice president for security at Airports Council International, a nonprofit representing airport owners and operators in the U.S. and Canada.
“TSA has done a commendable job providing security despite the shutdown,” he said. “We have not seen significant increases in wait times on a national level, but we are concerned a prolonged government shutdown could affect wait times as TSA agents seek other employment.”
When A.J. Johnson, a teacher in the United Arab Emirates, arrived at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for his flight to Dubai in early January, he was greeted with what he described as “a mess.” He has flown out of the airport before but hadn’t seen a crowd like this.
“The lines were exceptionally longer than normal, especially for a peak departure time frame of 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.,” he said, adding that only two of three security lines in the terminal were staffed.
‘When you aren’t sure if you can feed your children or pay your mortgage, it takes a toll. When you put stress like that on a person, how can you focus on your job?’ — —Hydrick Thomas, American Federation of Government Employees
A spokeswoman for DFW said the airport was running “with normal operations” and would not comment on the state of Transportation Security Administration security lines specifically. She said airport data show 90% of passengers get through security in 14 minutes or less, on average. But the number of agents calling out sick at the airport has increased by 200% to 300%, CNN reported on January 4.
TSA agents don’t know when they will get their next paycheck, taking a toll on employee morale, causing some workers to call in sick and creating longer lines for travelers, said Hydrick Thomas, a TSA employee and council president of the American Federation of Government Employees, a labor union representing more than 600,000 federal employees.
“They are working under tremendous stress while trying to secure our nation,” he said. “Many of our employees are single parents. When you aren’t sure if you can feed your children or pay your mortgage, it takes a toll. When you put stress like that on a person, how can you focus on your job?”
Federal employees have limited legal rights to strike, and, during shutdowns, law prohibits them from taking vacation.
That results in some employees‘ refusing to come to work, opting to take on other part-time jobs until they are paid again, to ensure they can pay rent, Thomas said. In line with DFW, the average wait time nationally to get from the end of the line through security is 14 minutes, but Thomas said it is getting closer to 30 minutes amid current disruptions.
Airline compensation company AirHelp declared 2018 ‘the worst year to fly for travelers’ due to an increase in passengers and delays in flights. —
A TSA spokesman told MarketWatch that volume is typically high over the holidays, which could contribute to recent lines. Long queues and delays can also result from equipment challenges, prohibited items being discovered, or other security-related factors.
“It is true that the lapse in federal funding has made it more difficult for affected federal employees, to include our screening officers,” he said. “They are to be commended. Being charged with fulfilling our mission of protecting the nation’s transportation systems, it is due to their integrity and commitment that we can provide continued service during this partial government shutdown.”
This comes after years of TSA staffing shortages have increased wait times at airports, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.
Airline compensation company AirHelp declared 2018 “the worst year to fly for travelers” due to an increase in passengers, delays and poor quality of service from many airlines internationally. A daily average of 2,400 U.S. travelers experienced flight disruptions last year, according to an AirHelp report.
“Our business is to get passengers out on time, and we are doing the best we can, but it’s hard to do under all this stress,” Thomas said. “I am just keeping a prayer that the Senate and House comes to some form of resolution so employees can keep doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.”
This story was updated on Jan. 25, 2019.
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