During a lengthy government shutdown, travelers are often rightfully concerned about the strain on TSA workers, who are required to continue airport screenings without pay. A poll by Airfarewatchdog (SmarterTravel’s sister company) recently found that 62 percent of travelers are concerned about safety at airports during a shutdown. Plus, 47 percent think that airlines should have to pay for private security to fill gaps during worker shortages.
But clearly, neither airlines nor airports are required to fill those gaps—and need to continue operating despite them. That can mean longer security lines, and a lot more general airport havoc. And with no real insight from the airline on how to cope, many passengers are left wondering what they can do.
TSA Government Shutdown Need-to-Knows
TSA and airports do know several basic things during a government shutdown, including which app can help you figure out how long it’ll take to get through the airport if you’re concerned about security wait times. Here are five things you need to know about TSA woes during a government shutdown.
The Problem: During a shutdown, TSA employees are not getting their paychecks but working anyway. During the weeks-long January 2019 shutdown, lots of TSA employees called in sick—most likely because they needed to find other work so they can keep up with their bills. With overall staffing down (TSA confirmed absences had spiked) some airports had to consolidate checkpoints or shut down terminals.
The Confusion: TSA often responds to reports of delays that wait times are largely normal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your particular airport is fine. For example, during the most recent shutdown TSA reported that despite the staff shortages, 99 percent of travelers processed through security within the “standard” maximum time of 30 minutes—a claim that’s difficult to affirm or refute at any given time or on any given day. Local news media, meanwhile, reported wait times well in excess of the standard 30 minutes at some key airports, notably including Atlanta and Houston/Bush.
The Resources: So, how do you find out what’s actually happening at your airport? Only a handful of airports, including Atlanta, Denver, Houston, and New York/La Guardia post delay times on their websites. The MyTSA app, however, allows users to share real-time security processing times for most U.S. airports. MyTSA remains up and running during a shutdown because the app is based on location services from individual travelers who passed through security already—it can theoretically work on its own even with severe staff shortages. If you don’t already have the app, it’s free and available for both iOS and Android. And it’s available only as a smartphone app, not online.
The Back-up Plan: If you don’t have a smartphone, the independent website iFly has security wait time estimates based on a combination of historical data and analytics. Because it doesn’t use real-time reports, it’s less helpful. If you Google “wait time” and the name of your airport, the first search result should be the iFly report for that airport.
The Uncertainty: Nobody knows if or when TSA will see delays during a shutdown, and if they’ll even address the delays accurately. But just about everybody suggests that you allow even more time than usual to complete screening, and the MyTSA app is the only way to find out how much time, exactly, you might be up against.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 2 Major Budget Airlines Join TSA PreCheck
- Not Just Liquids: TSA Adds New Rule for Carry-ons That Will Change How You Pack
- TSA PreCheck Lanes Could Soon (Finally) Be for PreCheck Members Only
Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.