Transportation Security Administration officials say that staffing levels have not been dramatically affected by the partial government shutdown which started on December 22. News of a security lapse in which a passenger brought a handgun onto an international flight, a growing “blue flu” and airports warning passengers of closed airport checkpoints paints a much different picture.
After an armed passenger managed to board a Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) to Tokyo Narita International Airport (NRT)-bound Delta Air Lines flight earlier this month, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials were quick to dismiss concerns that the incident was related to the ongoing partial federal government shutdown. The serious security lapse was the first of a number of signs that the Homeland Security agency responsible for protecting air travelers is under increasing strain as screeners enter a record fourth straight week without paychecks.
“The perception that this might have occurred as a result of the partial government shutdown would be false,” the TSA told CNN in a statement regarding the missed handgun earlier this month. “The national unscheduled absence rate of TSA staff on Thursday, January 3, 2019, was 4.8% compared to 6.3% last year, Thursday, January 4, 2018. So in fact, the national call out rate was higher a year ago than this year on that date.”
Although the agency’s overall staffing levels have held so far, there are indications that some airports across the country have been hit harder than others by employee absenteeism. According to local media reports, the wait at ATL security checkpoint lines has, at times, reached past the 60-minute mark. Meanwhile, officials at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) were forced to close one of the airport’s security checkpoints on Sunday due to “staffing issues associated with the partial shutdown of the federal government.”
A so-called “blue flu,” informally in place since the shutdown, has led to more than double the absentee rates at some airports. As the shutdown drags on and federal workers continue to go without paychecks, absenteeism rates are expected to continue to climb.
The TSA is also warning passengers that information about prohibited items and instructions issued to the flying public may not be up to date. In this case, the TSA admits that the unavailability of the latest security and safety information is a direct result of the federal shutdown.
“NOTICE: Due to the lapse in federal funding, this website will not be actively managed,” the TSA noted in a last message to passengers. “This website was last updated on December 21, 2018 and will not be updated until after funding is enacted. As such, information on this website may not be up to date.”
In a press release confirming that an armed passenger was allowed to board an international flight, the agency rejected the notion that the security lapse was the result of understaffing and promised that the TSA has held unpaid and understaffed workers responsible “appropriately accountable.” Those ultimately responsible for the current state of airport security, however, won’t likely be held appropriately accountable until the next election at the earliest.
[Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]