As the government shutdown drags through a second week with no end in sight, staffing issues at airports across the United States are increasingly creating delays for travelers and could start to present a major security risk as air traffic controllers and safety inspectors remain off the job.
TSA officers, air traffic controllers, and pilots are warning the shutdown will cause long-term problems for air travel in the US. Some TSA officers have already quit rather than work without pay, and if the shutdown continues, union leaders expect more will start looking for new jobs, in addition to calling out sick.
Air traffic control and TSA have seen their national workforce shrink in recent years, and under the shutdown, training of new hires has been ruled unessential. Upgrading technology has also been put on hold, as has some safety inspections and oversight.
That means it will be harder for the federal aviation workforce to bounce back, even after the shutdown ends.
“The loss of officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers since we don’t have enough trainees in the pipeline or the ability to process new hires,” American Federation of Government Employees TSA council president Hydrick Thomas said in a statement Tuesday.
Transportation security officers “already do an amazing job without the proper staffing levels, but if this keeps up there are problems that will arise — least of which would be increased wait times for travelers,” Thomas added.
Many air traffic controllers had already been working regular overtime because of the staffing shortfall, with six-day weeks and 10-hour days in some of the busiest radar facilities, National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi added in a statement.
“The shutdown almost certainly will make a bad situation worse,” Rinaldi said. “If the staffing shortage gets worse, we will see reduced capacity in the National Airspace System, meaning more flight delays.”
Staffing is already at a 30-year low, the union said, and with 1 in 5 air traffic controllers currently eligible for retirement, many may choose to take that option once the shutdown is over.
Sick calls from employees have been causing “minimal” impact, TSA officials said, adding that almost all air travelers waited in security lines for less than 30 minutes Monday.
But internally, the employee absences are already causing problems at least one airport, according to an email obtained by CNN.
Martin Elam, a TSA deputy federal security director, wrote to employees at Southern California’s Palm Springs International Airport that they were required to work.
“Due to excessive unscheduled absences recently experienced at PSP (Palm Springs International airport) that has adversely impacted security operations, if you have an unscheduled absence, you will NOT be placed in an intermittent furlough status,” Elam wrote, according to CNN. “Your unauthorized unscheduled absence will be coded by payroll as absent without leave (AWOL). At the conclusion of the government shutdown, an employee’s AWOL status may result in progressive disciplinary action.”