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Flying During the Shutdown? Prepare for Slower Security Checks

Waits longest in Atlanta, Minneapolis−Saint Paul and Seattle airports

Passengers in long TSA line at JFK Airport

Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

Airline passengers are feeling the strain of the government shutdown as security wait times at airports around the country continue to be affected by an increasing number of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents failing to show up for work. 

According to TSA data, 1 in every 16 agents was absent on both Jan. 16 and 17. Despite staffing issues, the agency reports that wait times remain 30 minutes or less for the vast majority of travelers headed through security checkpoints. 

In an agency report released late this week, of the nation’s top 42 airports the standard wait times on Jan. 17 were highest at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where passengers waited 47 minutes to clear security, followed by Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport (36 minutes), and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (31 minutes). Yet, the report also showed that 94.2 percent of passengers made it through standard security lanes in 15 minutes or less and in TSA Precheck lines, the average wait time was less than five minutes. 

Passengers at six airports, including Boston Logan International Airport, Chicago Midway International Airport and Palm Beach International Airport in Florida, had wait times of 10 minutes or less. Westchester County Airport in New York had the fastest lines, at five minutes. 

For TSA Precheck passengers, lines have been predictably shorter, typically around four minutes. The longest wait time on Jan. 17 was at Hartsfield-Jackson (20 minutes), while Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport reported a wait time of two minutes. 

Still, these numbers reflect wait times for the middle of the week. Weekend travelers, especially those planning on catching a flight this holiday weekend, should budget a bit more time to move through security. The agency anticipates that a high volume of travelers — more than 8 million — will be screened in the next few days, up 10.8 percent from last year’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. 

Other disruptions to service are possible. Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, for instance, has closed the ticketing lobby and security checkpoint in one of its terminals, which means some passengers have had to travel between terminals in order to reach their departure gate. 

Despite the ongoing TSA staffing shortages, some federal aviation employees are returning to work. The Federal Aviation Administration this week recalled thousands of previously furloughed flight inspectors and engineers. They will go back to work alongside air traffic controllers, who, like TSA agents, have been working without pay during the shutdown.

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