In this 2017 photo, air traffic controllers work in the tower at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The partial government shutdown is starting to effect air travelers. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

In this 2017 photo, air traffic controllers work in the tower at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The partial government shutdown is starting to effect air travelers. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Air travelers start to feel effects of government shutdown

Air traffic controllers won’t get paychecks later this week despite working over the holidays.

By David Koenig / Associated Press

DALLAS — The partial government shutdown is starting to affect air travel.

Over the weekend, some airports had long lines at checkpoints, apparently caused by a rising number of security officers calling in sick as they face the prospect of missing their first paycheck this week.

Safety inspectors aren’t even on the job. A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman said Monday that inspectors are being called back to work on a case-by-case basis, with a priority put on inspecting airline fleets.

So far, the most visible signs of the shutdown — in its 18th day Tuesday — include the closure of some government buildings and national parks and trash overflowing bins on the National Mall in front of the Capitol.

By increasingly affecting air travel, however, the pain will be felt more widely.

Here are some common questions about the shutdown’s impact on airports and travel, along with the answers:

Who is supposed to keep working?

About 10,000 air traffic controllers who work for the Federal Aviation Administration, about 51,000 Transportation Security Administration officers, and an undisclosed number of federal air marshals have been told to keep reporting to work because they are deemed essential. Government employees have always been paid after past shutdowns ended, and that is the widespread expectation this time too.

Are they showing up?

TSA acknowledges that more screeners are calling in sick at some airports, including Dallas-Fort Worth International. It gave few numbers but issued a statement Friday saying that more have been missing work since the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The TSA said the effect was “minimal.”

Then over the weekend, travelers reported longer checkpoint lines at some airports, including LaGuardia in New York.

On Monday, TSA tweeted that agents screened 2.22 million passengers nationwide on Sunday, which it called a “historically busy day due to holiday travel.” TSA said only about 220,000 travelers waited at least 15 minutes at checkpoints, while 0.2 percent — fewer than 5,000 — waited at least 30 minutes.

How will TSA respond to no-shows?

Airport screeners start around $24,000 and most earn between $26,000 and $35,000 a year, according to TSA. That is far less than many other government employees, making them more vulnerable if they don’t get paid.

TSA spokesman Jim Gregory said officials are managing. “If we don’t have appropriations by midweek or so, (officers) will miss their first paycheck. That’s obviously where it becomes more difficult,” he said.

Gregory said the agency has a team of officers who can go to airports facing a shortage, a tactic developed in case natural disasters prevented screeners from getting to work.

What about traffic controllers?

About 1,900 air traffic controllers — nearly one in every five — are eligible to retire right now.

“I don’t know how long they’re going to stay on the job if they are not getting a paycheck,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

There is an even larger group of recently hired trainees and apprentices, and Rinaldi said a long shutdown could cause some of them to take other jobs.

Will the shutdown lead to flight delays?

Rinaldi said safety is not being compromised but that capacity to manage traffic could be reduced if the shutdown worsens an existing shortage of controllers. That could lead to flight delays, he said. Others are not so sure.

“It would have to get pretty bad before the government said (to airlines), ‘Hey, start scaling back your plans for service,’” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst. “You could see that in a worst-case scenario.”

An early test of the air traffic system could come around the Feb. 3 Super Bowl in Atlanta, when an influx of corporate jets and private planes will further crowd the sky above the nation’s busiest airport. Planning for handling that traffic has been put on hold, Rinaldi said.

What about safety?

The largest pilots’ union wrote to President Donald Trump last week urging a quick end to the shutdown, which it said was threatening the safety of the nation’s airspace.

On Tuesday, the new Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said the Trump administration hasn’t answered questions about how the shutdown is affecting the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to screen passengers heading to the U.S. and to assess security at foreign airports.

Patrick O’Carroll, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said there has been no deterioration of safety, no reductions in coverage, and no reports of air marshals — armed, undercover officers on flights — calling in sick.

Who is inspecting planes?

Federal aviation safety inspectors are not deemed essential government employees; they have been furloughed.

FAA spokesman Gregory Martin said the agency is recalling inspectors for certain jobs including assignments at the airlines, as in previous shutdowns.

“We’re going to continue to prioritize with the resources that we have,” Martin said. “Our focus is on the commercial air carriers and volumes of people they carry.”

Martin did not say how many inspectors are working or how the number of inspections being done compared with pre-shutdown levels.

Chuck Banks, one of those furloughed inspectors, said colleagues are being called in when an airline needs something, like a plane certified for flight. The routine, normal oversight of operations at airlines and repair shops is not being done, leaving companies to regulate themselves, he said.

“Do you like the fox watching the hen house?” he said. “Every day the government stays shut down, it gets less safe to fly.”

What other government services are affected?

The National Transportation Safety Board is delaying accident investigations and hearings. While there have not been any fatal airline crashes, the board has delayed other investigations, including an examination of a Florida highway accident that killed five children on their way to Walt Disney World.

NTSB representatives did not answer phone calls or reply to emails Monday. A recorded message for the public affairs office said nobody would respond until the shutdown ends.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has closed many centers where people apply for Global Entry, a program that lets travelers get expedited clearance into the U.S. It is not clear if any applications are being processed; spokespeople at the agency did not respond for comment.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

The tower of Paine Field Airport stands in a fog bank forcing flights to be averted or cancelled in Everett, Washington on January 25, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
More 5G-related cancellations as Paine Field fog persists

The FAA has not cleared certain planes to land in low visibility in Everett due to nearby 5G cellular towers.

Funko mascots Freddy Funko roll past on a conveyor belt in the Pop! Factory of the company's new flagship store on Aug. 18, 2017.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Despite Arizona move, Everett leaders expect Funko HQ to stay

The toymaker is closing Everett warehouses. But a recent “HQ2” expansion has the city confident Funko will remain rooted here.

Meat dishes color icons set. Steak, beef ribs, chicken legs, burger. Fast food. Butcher shop product. Restaurant, grill bar, steakhouse menu. Isolated vector illustrations
Best place to go for BBQ in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied, here are the results.

2021 survey results from the State Broadband Survey for Snohomish County. (Washington State Department of Commerce)
$16M grant to speed up broadband to north Snohomish County

In Darrington and elsewhere, rural residents have struggled to work remotely during the pandemic. A new project aims to help.

FILE - In this March 31, 2017, file photo, Boeing employees stand near the new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner at the company's facility in South Carolina after conducting its first test flight at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, S.C.  The International Association of Machinist says six of its earliest and most vocal members have been fired at Boeing’s South Carolina plant, months after some employees at the sprawling North Charleston campus voted to join the union.  The Machinists tell The Associated Press that half a dozen employees were terminated from the North Charleston production facilities earlier in 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith, File)
Boeing posts $4 billion loss tied to problems with 787 jet

Manufacturing problems with the Dreamliner will add $2 billion to the company’s production costs.

An Alaska Airlines Embraer 175 airplane bound for Portland, Ore., takes off Monday, March 4, 2019, at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. The flight was the first flight on the inaugural day for commercial passenger flights from the airport. Alaska Airlines began scheduled flights Monday, and United Airlines will begin commercial flights on March 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
5G-related airline cancellations arrive at Paine Field

One type of plane serving Everett is subject to restrictions due to feared cellular phone interference with navigation.

Funko warehouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Funko to close Everett warehouses, shift work to Arizona

The company headquarters are currently in downtown Everett, but distribution will move to a Phoenix suburb.

FILE - Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson talks to reporters, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, during a news conference in Seattle. In a 5-4 decision Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, the Washington Supreme Court upheld an $18 million campaign finance penalty against the Consumer Brands Association, formerly known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Ferguson sued the group in 2013, alleging that it spent $11 million to oppose a ballot initiative without registering as a political committee or disclosing the source of the money. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington justices uphold $18M fine in GMO-labeling case

Big grocers funneled dark money into a campaign against genetically modified labels on food packaging.

In this photo taken May 17, 2017, wine barrels are shown at a vineyard adjacent to the Walla Walla Vintners winery in Walla Walla, Wash. The remote southeastern Washington town of Walla Walla - which used to be best known for sweet onions and as home of the state penitentiary - has now reinvented itself into a center of premium wines and wine tourism. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)
More sustainable Washington wines are on the way

Labels will indicate grape growers met guidelines in 9 areas, including water, pest and labor practices.

Most Read