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Number of TSA checkpoint agents calling out during shutdown stresses major airports

A Transportation Security Administration agent screens passengers at a security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the airports struggling with staffing problems. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

The number of airport security workers failing to show up for work hit an all-time high over the weekend, straining checkpoint lanes at several major hub airports.

The number of unscheduled absences was 8 percent nationally, compared with 3 percent a year ago, as the Transportation Security Administration conceded that many of its workers could no longer handle the financial hardship of working without pay during the government shutdown.

The agency said the stress was being felt at checkpoint lanes in New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Miami.

At Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, one checkpoint was shut down at 5:35 p.m. Saturday because of a shortage of workers. Authorities said the checkpoint would be closed early again Sunday. At various points during the shutdown, airports in Atlanta, Houston and Miami also have operated under contingency plans to address the shortage.

“There is an increasing percentage of the TSA workforce that is calling out, predominantly for financial reason,” TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said. “This is isolated now to a number of our largest hub airports.”

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Bilello said the agency had sent special agents from its National Deployment Force (NDF) to supplement checkpoint agents. NDF members normally are dispatched when an event like the Super Bowl or a crisis like a major hurricane takes place.

“We have fully deployed our established NDF and [are] increasing its size substantially,” Bilello said, “but TSA’s capability is still limited and will ultimately lead to increased lane closures in order to maintain security effectiveness.”

Bilello said NDF officers have been deployed at airports across the system, including Atlanta, Newark and New York’s LaGuardia.

He reiterated that the TSA will not allow the staffing shortage to compromise airport security.

“Airports will continue to change daily as needs arise; TSA will continue to monitor volume fluctuations to schedule those changes and make decisions accordingly,” Bilello said. “While we are not releasing specific numbers, we can confirm that there are limited resources available and our ability to reinforce airports with National Deployment Officers is becoming more difficult.”

TSA acknowledges financial stress of shutdown is forcing growing number of officers to stay home

TSA agents are among the estimated 800,000 federal employees who are furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown, which has entered its fifth week.

Brent D. Bowen, a professor of aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Arizona campus, said the demand for TSA workers to continue work without pay would have an inevitable impact.

“We can’t expect any group of people to work indefinitely for no pay,” Bowen said. “It affects morale. They’re worried about their families. When that happens, you can’t focus on your job as well as you would under normal circumstances.”

Rolland Vincent, an industry expert and co-chair of an aviation group under the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, said TSA agents have a vital job to do, and their work, along with that of the Federal Aviation Administration, is being recklessly undercut by the shutdown.

The nation, he said, “is playing with guns.”

“We’re exposed,” added Vincent, co-chair of the Transportation Research Board’s subcommittee on commercial aviation. “Somebody is going to get hurt.”

For now, the skies remain safe, officials say, but the shutdown is stressing the nation’s air safety system

Despite the record number of no-shows among TSA checkpoint agents Saturday, the TSA said that virtually all of the 1.6 million passengers screened passed through within the agency’s 30-minute standard, and that almost 94 percent were cleared in 15 minutes or less.