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What To Know About Airport Security During The Government Shutdown (#GotBitcoin?)

Advice for travelers wondering how to navigate TSA checkpoints staffed by federal employees. What To Know About Airport Security During The Government Shutdown

Airport checkpoints staffed by the Transportation Security Administration are the retail face of the government—a place where the public interacts directly with federal employees. The government shutdown has left travelers with many questions. Here are some answers.

What Should I Do If I’m Traveling?

Show up early, although that can backfire if it means arriving in the early-morning hours when staffing may still be sorting out and a crush of passengers arrives for the first departures of the day.

What To Know About Airport Security During The Government Shutdown (#GotBitcoin?)
This Year Is Off To A Turbulent Start Because The Government Shutdown Has Led To Fewer TSA Screeners On Duty, Lengthening Lines For Some Travelers. Atlanta, Seen Here, Saw Delays On Monday Morning.

If your airport has multiple checkpoints, ask airline ticket-counter agents or airport customer service reps if one has a shorter line than another. Sometimes walking to an alternate checkpoint can save time.

Check your airport’s website to see if it posts TSA wait times. Many do now, although the information can be dated. You may see no wait when you leave home but encounter a long wait when you arrive at the airport.

How Much Have Wait Times Increased?

Think of it as summer crowds at the checkpoints. TSA says that on Monday, 94.3% of passengers waited less than 15 minutes in standard lanes and PreCheck passengers on average waited less than 10 minutes.

After last summer, TSA said during peak days 97% of passengers waited less than 20 minutes in standard lanes and 94% of PreCheck passengers waited less than five minutes.

The time periods are different, but the experience seems comparable. What’s different now is that there seem to be pop-up problems when a bunch of screeners at a particular airport call in sick.

On Monday morning, for example, Atlanta had a maximum wait time of 88 minutes at standard screening lanes and 55 minutes at PreCheck, according to TSA. Dallas Love Field had a maximum wait of 41 minutes for standard, but only five minutes maximum for PreCheck.

But for the most part, there were quite normal operations Monday. The maximum wait at Chicago O’Hare, for example, was 16 minutes. Denver, which often has long lines, was only 14 minutes. Seattle was 20 minutes.

In San Francisco, screeners work for a private contractor and are still getting paid. Monday’s wait times had SFO right in the mix with airports that did have increased sick calls. SFO’s maximum standard-screening wait was 18 minutes and its maximum PreCheck wait was four minutes. Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas had exactly the same wait times. New York Kennedy was 18 minutes for standard and three minutes for PreCheck. Philadelphia and Phoenix were both 17 minutes for standard and five minutes for PreCheck.

Following typical traffic patterns, security lines moved faster on Tuesday, the TSA says.

Are Precheck And Private Security-Line Services Like Clear Affected?

If this doesn’t convince you to sign up for Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program, which includes PreCheck, or to just sign up for PreCheck, I’m not sure what will. PreCheck waits remain shorter than standard. Clear is a service that gets you to the front of PreCheck or standard screening, depending on what you qualify for, and can save some time. As always, if you want to avoid long lines, pay up.

Is There A Difference Between Domestic And International Trips?

No, we all go through the same TSA screening. Be aware that some checkpoints near gates with lots of international flights may be very crowded in the afternoon before departures to Europe.

Also, if booking international flights with connections, you might want to leave extra time to clear Customs. There haven’t been reports of any shortage of CBP officers, but if the shutdown drags on, it’d be prudent to plan accordingly.

Is There A Difference Between Big Hubs And Smaller Airports?

No, there doesn’t appear to be. The longest wait on Monday at Los Angeles International was 14 minutes. Hartford, Conn., far smaller, had a maximum wait of 19 minutes. But Austin, Texas, also smaller than LAX, had a maximum of 11 minutes.

How Much Has Airline Travel Been Disrupted In General Due To The Shutdown?

Not much. Thankfully, this is a very slow travel period in terms of passengers per day. January was the slowest travel month in 2018—things start picking up in February with school vacations and Presidents Day weekend.

This January may be even slower because the shutdown is reducing business travel. Delta Air Lines , for example, says government contractors and employees are canceling trips, and the shutdown cost the airline $25 million in reduced revenue this month.

Air-traffic control operations have been relatively normal. Controllers are deemed essential and are showing up even though they won’t be paid until after the shutdown ends. There are speed bumps that don’t directly affect travelers, such as a freeze on new aircraft certification, new licenses for mechanics and other workers.

The sickout by TSA screeners, who are also deemed essential, has been significant. It has created occasional very long lines at some airports, particularly in the early morning when lots of passengers show up. And the problem for travelers is you don’t really know when or where the long line might be. Most everything else has been normal.

Is It Safe To Travel During The Shutdown?

As safe as any other day. Much of TSA screening no longer requires much human decision-making. Dogs are very effective at detecting explosive materials and are more widely deployed. Software in screening machines flags things for screeners with more precision. The agency is running checkpoints with all key posts filled, so the screening you get should be standard. Lacking employees, it’s shutting down some lanes and creating longer lines, not skimping on screeners on lanes that are open.

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Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.

Monty H. & Carolyn A.

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