WASHINGTON • US airport security workers and air traffic controllers working without pay have warned that security and safety could be compromised if a government shutdown continues beyond today, when some workers will miss their first pay cheques.
On Wednesday, the 19th day of a partial government shutdown caused by a dispute over funding that President Donald Trump wants for a border wall, he stormed out of talks with Democratic congressional leaders, complaining the meeting was "a total waste of time".
As the effects of the shutdown began to ripple out, the Trump administration insisted that air travel staffing was adequate and travellers had not faced unusual delays.
But union officials said some Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers, who carry out airport security screening, had already quit because of the shutdown and others were considering quitting.
"The loss of (TSA) officers, while we're already short-handed, will create a massive security risk for American travellers since we don't have enough trainees... or the ability to process new hires," said Mr Hydrick Thomas, the TSA council president for the American Federation of Government Employees.
"If this keeps up there are problems that will arise - least of which would be increased wait times for travellers."
TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said the organisation was hiring officers and working on contingency plans in case the shutdown lasted beyond today, when officers would miss their first pay cheques since the shutdown began on Dec 22.
"There has been no degradation in security effectiveness, and average wait times are well within TSA standards," he said.
He added that there had been no spike in employees quitting, and that on Tuesday, 5 per cent of officers took unscheduled leave, up just slightly from 3.9 per cent the same day last year. It screened 1.73 million passengers and 99.9 per cent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes, the TSA said.
But US Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, questioned how long adequate staffing at airports could continue.
"TSA officers are among the lowest paid federal employees, with many living pay cheque to pay cheque," he 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."
Airports Council International-North America, which represents US airports, urged Mr Trump and congressional leaders in a letter to quickly reopen the government.
"TSA staffing shortages brought on by this shutdown are likely to further increase checkpoint wait times and may even lead to the complete closure of some checkpoints," the group said.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) noted that the number of controllers was already at a 30-year low, with 18 per cent of controllers eligible to retire.
If a significant number of controllers missed work, the Federal Aviation Administration could be forced to extend the amount of time between takeoffs and landings, which could delay travel, it said.
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," he said.