Airport Booking Strategy

Airports Close Terminals as TSA Workers Stay Home During Government Shutdown

Update: On January 13, Houston’s George Bush International airport closed a terminal due to a worker shortage. The move followed Miami International Airport’s closure of a terminal amid TSA officer call outs. Our original story including tips on how to avoid airport delays during the shutdown continues below.

As the government shut down drags on into January, travelers are rightly concerned about impacts at the airport if federal workers continue to be furloughed. TSA staff continued to work during the first few weeks of the government shutdown, mitigating any potential impact at our nation’s airports. But with no end to the shutdown in sight, and no pay for TSA workers (and other government employees), it’s fair to wonder when your airport could suffer noticeable delays.

TSA Calling in Sick

The first sign of trouble came from reports of TSA employees calling in sick during the third week of the government shutdown. Hundreds of TSA workers at four major airports called out last week, according to CNN. This includes 170 employees each day at New York’s JFK, and an increase in call-outs of 200  to 300 percent at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

These call-outs require other TSA employees to extend their shifts to fill in the gaps, again without pay. So far, it does not seem like the call-outs have overwhelmed the TSA’s capacity, as wait times remain within the agencies standards. But extending shifts is obviously not ideal in a job where attention to detail is essential.

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If call-outs increase, however, travelers may soon encounter prolonged waits at understaffed airports. A TSA union official told CNN that more call-outs are likely as the shutdown continues. “This problem of call outs is really going to explode over the next week or two when employees miss their first paycheck,” the official said. “TSA officers are telling the union they will find another way to make money. That means calling out to work other jobs.”

The official added that while some call-outs are a protest of the paycheck situation, many simply can’t afford to work for free. Some parents, for example, can’t afford child care with no pay coming in.

What You Can Do

The trickiest part of this situation for travelers is that it’s evolving and unpredictable. No one knows how long the shutdown will last, and there’s no way to predict where, when, and how severely TSA operations might be affected.

That said, there are a few simple things you can do to minimize disruptions to your travels:

  • Leave extra time: Build some breathing room into your schedule. Arriving at the airport at least 30 minutes earlier than you otherwise would will give you some peace of mind in the event of slower-than-normal security lines.
  • Pay attention to the news: The shutdown and its impact on TSA operations is big news, and media outlets will continue covering it thoroughly. If disruptions increase, you’ll be able to know ahead of time. You can also check individual airports’ websites and social media pages for any updates.
  • Keep your eyes open: In addition to slower security lines, there is concern that a prolonged shutdown could diminish the thoroughness of security checks. Overworked, unpaid screeners may pressure themselves to rush through screenings just to keep the line moving.
  • Be patient, be kind: Remember, the women and men of the TSA are working unpaid, with no clear sense of when their paychecks will resume. How would you feel if you boss demanded you show up to work for weeks on end with no pay? Whatever your thoughts or feelings are about the TSA philosophically, show screeners a little kindness next time you pass through a checkpoint.

Readers, have you flown during the shutdown? What was your experience?

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By Carl Unger

Contributing Editor Carl Unger believes that every trip is worth taking. He loves an extended trip to Europe as much as he enjoys exploring the towns and landscape near home. Basically, you'll find him wherever there is good food, fresh air, and plenty of stories to bring home.

Carl has been writing for SmarterTravel since 2005. His travel writing has also appeared on USA Today and the Boston travel guide.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "It's not revolutionary, but a small Moleskine notebook is my one travel must-have. It's great for noting things you want to remember and it takes up hardly any space in your bag."

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