Flyers Find Anxiety-Inducing Lines at the World's Busiest Airport Amid Shutdown: 'It's Just Horrible'
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, long the world's busiest, saw security lines lasting up to an hour and a half on Monday
As the airport security lines around him stretched on for an hour or more, Peter Phillips had a short reaction to all the waiting.
“It’s just horrible,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday of the lengthy delays at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, long the world’s busiest, which saw lines lasting up to an hour and a half.
Photos and videos of the crowds circulated widely on social media.
“This may be the longest security line I have ever seen. Even growing up here, and even for a Monday morning,” CNN’s Omar Jimenez wrote on Twitter along with the video of one security line that reached back to the airport entrance. “One passenger told me he’d been waiting over an hour and still had about 30 minutes to go.
Writer Aaron Gould Sheinin chronicled an even lengthier delay on Twitter, saying it took him two and a half hours to get through security after arriving to find the line stretched back to baggage claim.
The cause? Staffing shortages, according to the AJC, which reported Monday that TSA employees who are required to work without pay during the federal government shutdown have instead been unusually absent from work.
In a statement, the TSA said its unscheduled absences on Monday were 6.8 percent nationally — nearly three times the rate a year prior. (The agency declined to release airport-specific figures, citing security concerns.)
This follows a CNN report earlier this month, disputed by the TSA at the time, that their employees were calling in sick rather than work without pay.
The TSA stressed that “national average wait times” were normal, though “some airports” saw far longer lines, including Atlanta. “Overall, 99.1 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes,” the TSA said.
The remaining 0.9 percent, or 17,000 people, did not.
In a statement last week, an official with the the American Federation of Government Employee, which represents TSA employees, said “some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown,” according to The Daily Beast.
On Sunday the AFGE president said, in part: “These women and men signed up to serve their country, and they do a remarkable job keeping us safe – even when they’re not being compensated to do so.”
Sheinin, traveling through Hartsfield-Jackson on Monday, noted unused security checkpoints as he wound his way toward his gate, and the AJC reported that six domestic security lanes were closed.
“A lot of people in line have missed their flights,” Phillips told the paper. “There needs to be some sort of Plan B when this stuff happens.”
An anonymous air traffic controller speaking with The Daily Beast about Monday’s delays said, “Everything is a mess here. No one knows who is open, who is working or what terminals are functioning. It’s a total s—show that won’t be solved until the shutdown is over.”
“Today, we did feel the impact of the federal shutdown more than we have thus far,” an airport spokeswoman told the AJC of Monday’s lines, while also noting the day of the week was already known for higher volume.
The TSA said it “made adjustments to maximize all available operational resources” at Hartsfield-Jackson, according to the AJC, but nonetheless advised that “travelers should contact their airline before traveling because times may be affected.”
A security checkpoint at one of Houston’s airports reportedly closed Sunday into Monday over similar staffing issues.
“As TSA has stated previously, airports in certain locations will begin exercising consolidation options during peak periods,” agency spokesman Michael Bilello told The Daily Beast. “These decisions will be made at the local level.”
On Twitter Monday, Hartsfield-Jackson said much the same, tweeting that the airport was “experiencing longer than usual wait times during peak travel. Please plan ahead and give yourself 3 hours to clear security.”
On Tuesday morning, the airport said on Twitter that wait times were down to less than 15 minutes.
Reached Tuesday morning by phone, a Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman asked for questions to be submitted by email; representatives did not immediately respond. A TSA official did not respond to a request for comment.
Some 800,000 federal workers are going without pay — either at work as essential employees or furloughed — while the government remains shutdown over President Donald Trump‘s calls for funding for a border wall, which Congressional Democrats have rejected.
One stranded worker is Kristie Scarazzo, a botanist with the government and single mom who recently applied for unemployment benefits while she’s not at work.
“I’ve never received public assistance before. Part of me feels mixed about that,” she told PEOPLE. “I don’t know what else to do. I don’t have many cards to play.”