Though JFK and LaGuardia haven’t historically ranked as the best airports in the country, it seems neither Queens facility has seen TSA lines as extensive as those at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which gained national attention this week with reports of three-hour waits to get through security.
Still, travelers and airport workers alike in New York City are expressing frustration at the way the government shutdown has impacted air travel.
On Monday, the TSA experienced a national unscheduled absence rate of 7.6 percent, more than double the rate of 3.2 percent for that date one year ago. This was the first business day after which TSA agents missed out on their first paycheck so far during this government shutdown.
Some TSA agents are even quitting, according to Hydrick Thomas, TSA council president with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union. Thomas is also president of AFGE Local 2222, which has members in New York and New Jersey.
“Every day I’m getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck. Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown,” he said in a statement last week.
The TSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about absences at JFK and LaGuardia specifically, and Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which manages JFK and LaGuardia, referred questions on those specifics to TSA.
Port Authority has been tracking TSA wait times online at jfkairport.com and laguardiaairport.com through the government shutdown as normal. On Tuesday afternoon, security wait times did not exceed 20 minutes at either airport, according to their online trackers.
But some travelers say those real-time trackers don’t tell the whole story. Lauren Hesse, a 29-year-old New Yorker, showed up at JFK Airport on Friday before 5 p.m. for her 7:30 flight to New Orleans when she found herself in a long TSA line.
“Terminal 4’s website said wait time was 15 to 20 mins when I was literally standing in line,” she said in an email. “End to end it took me over almost an hour and a half to get through the security.”
Everyone was “civil and nice” in JFK, she added, “but people were getting really desperate, everyone around me was anxious and checking their phones to see if they would make boarding.”
TSA precheck was still available when Julian Counihan, 35, showed up at JFK airport at 7:30 on Monday night for his 8:30 flight.
Precheck and regular security screening lines were the same length, he said, though he noted that TSA precheck “cuts significant time from the screening process.”
Government shutdown and TSA agents affecting safety?
TSA agents have been friendly and upbeat to travelers, Counihan said, but internally, some are concerned that the government shutdown is creating a security risk at airports.
“The loss of 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,” Thomas said in his statement. “If this keeps up there are problems that will arise — least of which would be increased wait times for travelers.”
Aviation safety specialists are also warning travelers of growing safety concerns during the government shutdown as airline inspectors are furloughed.
“The government shutdown has put a tremendous strain on the workers, but more so I believe it has put a strain on the aviation industry and its safety,” said Stephen K. Brown in a statement released Tuesday on behalf of employees belonging to the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) union.
“Aviation inspectors, like myself, have been forced to cease inspections on the airworthiness and operations of many commercial entities, from the large major air carriers down to the local commercial flight school,” he added. “The nation and the public are now in a position where the is little to no oversight on all these commercial operations, yet they are allowed to operate.”
Though airline companies may conduct their own checks, according to PASS, the Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors who double-check the work of those airlines and ensure that “companies play by the rules” have been sidelined since Dec. 22.
PASS is planning informational pickets at JFK and LaGuardia airport this week to bring attention to aviation safety during the government shutdown. Union members will picket at JFK Terminal 4 on Wednesday, Jan. 16 from 2 to 6 p.m., and at LaGuardia Terminal A on Thursday, Jan. 17 from 8 a.m. to noon.