January 9, 2019 / 9:02 PM / 2 months ago

U.S. air travel concerns surface as gov't shutdown drags on

WASHINGTON, Jan 9 (Reuters) - U.S. airport security workers and air traffic controllers working without pay have been warning that security and safety could be compromised if the government shutdown continues, but the Trump administration said on Wednesday that staffing is adequate and travelers have not faced unusual delays.

Union officials said some TSA officers have already quit because of the shutdown and many are considering quitting.

“The loss of (TSA) officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers since we don’t have enough trainees in the pipeline or the ability to process new hires,” American Federation of Government Employees TSA Council President Hydrick Thomas said. “If this keeps up there are problems that will arise – least of which would be increased wait times for travelers.”

Unions will hold a rally on Thursday on Capitol Hill urging an end to the shutdown.

“There has been no degradation in security effectiveness and average wait times are well within TSA standards,” Transportation Security Administration spokesman Michael Bilello said. There are 51,000 airport security officers, and he said the agency has brought on hundreds of new ones.

Bilello said there had been no spike in employees quitting and that on Tuesday, 5 percent of officers took unscheduled leave, up just slightly from 3.9 percent the same day last year.

U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, asked the Trump administration how it is ensuring adequate staffing at airports.

“TSA officers are among the lowest paid federal employees, with many living paycheck-to-paycheck,” Thompson wrote. “It is only reasonable to expect officer call outs and resignations to increase the longer the shutdown lasts, since no employee can be expected to work indefinitely without pay.”

TSA said that on Tuesday it screened 1.73 million passengers and 99.9 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes.

Bilello said TSA is still hiring officers and working on contingency plans in case the shutdown lasts beyond Friday, when officers would miss their first paycheck since the shutdown began on Dec. 22.

TSA has brought on about 500 new officers since the shutdown with 300 more expected to start later this month. “In order to maintain the right level of staffing, it’s critical to have a continuous process of recruiting, training and getting new officers to our nation’s airports,” Bilello said.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association noted that the number controllers is now at a 30-year low, with 18 percent of controllers eligible to retire.

If a significant number of controllers missed work, the Federal Aviation Administration could be forced to extend separation requirements, amount of time between takeoffs and landings, which could delay travel.

The FAA closed its training academy in Oklahoma City for new air traffic controller hires. The FAA suspended training and limited safety efforts to “urgent continued operational activity to protect life and property.”

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said controllers often must work overtime and six-day weeks at short-staffed locations. “If the staffing shortage gets worse, we will see reduced capacity in the National Airspace System, meaning more flight delays,” Rinaldi said. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio)

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