At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest airport by passenger traffic and number of take-offs and landings, travelers are being forced to wait in security checkpoint lines that wrap around the entire airport.
As more Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers call out sick after being expected to work without pay during the government shutdown, the wait times at the country’s most congested airports are becoming unbearable. “Yeah, we're inconvenienced. We're worried we may miss our flights, but it's nothing compared to what these people are going through,” said passenger Dawn Hunt, referring to the overextended TSA workers.
Some passengers are arriving up to six hours before their flight just to ensure they are able to board. The lack of security staff has raised alarms after a passenger reportedly traveled from Atlanta to Tokyo with a gun in his carry-on bag. Though the TSA says that the incident was unrelated to the shutdown and staff shortages, many are worried that understaffed security checkpoints could result in a heightened terrorist threat. In 2018, TSA staff discovered more than 4,000 firearms in carry-on bags – nearly 300 in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport alone.
In response to the incident, the TSA stated, "TSA has determined standard procedures were not followed and a passenger did, in fact, pass through a standard screening TSA checkpoint with a firearm at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on January 2. TSA will hold those responsible appropriately accountable."
Despite reports to the contrary, the TSA insists that the percentage of security personnel calling out sick in the US has not varied, claiming it was the same on Wednesday, January 2, 2019 – 5 percent -- as it was on Wednesday, January 3, 2018, when there was no shutdown. Yet Hartsfield-Jackson spokesperson Elise Durham disputed the TSA’s assertion, saying that although Mondays are always busy, “today, we did feel the impact of the federal shutdown more than we have thus far.”
TSA officers have been asked to work without pay since the government shutdown began on December 22. All federal employees missed their first paycheck last Friday. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents airport security officers, said that last week some workers had quit, while others chose not to report to duty.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the local government is closely monitoring the situation and has asked travelers to “pack their patience as they head to the airports.” She also thanked “the dedicated TSA employees who selflessly show up to secure our airport and our city, even amid the financial hardships and uncertainty this shutdown has caused them.”
A poll conducted Airfarewatchdog.com of 1,000 travelers revealed that 62 percent are worried about air travel safety as a result of the shutdown. The poll also showed that 47 percent of travelers think the airlines should provide private security during times of a federal shutdown.