Safety risks as airport workers stop showing up

As many as one in every 10 transportation security officers has been failing to show up for work, and backup officers have had to be flown in to bolster depleted ranks at some airports because of the partial US government shutdown. A rising number of
As many as one in every 10 transportation security officers has been failing to show up for work, and backup officers have had to be flown in to bolster depleted ranks at some airports because of the partial US government shutdown. A rising number of them have stopped reporting for work because they have not been paid, and travellers are wondering if it is safe to fly.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • A US government shutdown continues to put extraordinary pressure on the nation's air-travel system, with as many as one in every 10 transportation security officers failing to show up for work, and reserve workers having to be flown in to bolster depleted ranks at some airports.

The rate of unscheduled absences of airport screening agents dropped to 7.5 per cent on Monday, down from 10 per cent the day before, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said.

But the agency still had to deploy some backup officers to big airports, including Newark Liberty International in New Jersey, a spokesman for the agency said on Tuesday.

The agency's force of more than 50,000 officers learnt on Tuesday that they, like the rest of the 800,000 federal workers who have not been paid during the month-long shutdown, would miss another pay cheque this week.

The agency said that many of the absentees had cited financial troubles as their reason for not coming to work, a signal that the call-out rate is likely to continue rising until the shutdown ends.

Transportation experts and elected officials have begun asking how much longer the air-travel system can continue running safely.

"Every day that goes by puts us a day or an hour closer to a potential bad thing happening," said Mr John Pistole, a former administrator of the TSA.

DANGER LURKING

Every day that goes by puts us a day or an hour closer to a potential bad thing happening.

MR JOHN PISTOLE, a former administrator of the TSA.

The entire system is operating under unusual pressures: Workers are being ordered to report for duty with no idea when they will be paid for their labour.

Airlines are losing more than US$100 million (S$136 million) a month in revenue with the grounding of federal workers. Travellers are wondering how long it will take to get through airports and whether it is safe to fly.

On the front line stand the security screeners, who make less than US$40,000 a year and have not been paid in more than three weeks.

A rising number of them have stopped showing up for work because of financial troubles, the security administration said.

 
 

In their absence, some airports have had to close checkpoints, as Baltimore-Washington International did over the weekend.

At others, such as Newark Liberty International and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the TSA has had to deploy additional screeners to cope with long lines.

Mr Pistole, who oversaw the TSA's force of more than 50,000 screening agents under President Barack Obama, said he worried that the stress of not being able to pay bills or feed their families could result in a dangerous lapse.

Representative Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York City, said some workers told him they were having trouble buying enough fuel to drive back and forth to Kennedy International Airport.

He said he doubted that they could continue to show up much longer without getting paid. In the meantime, he said: "You've got to consider the safety of the air-travel system in its entirety."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2019, with the headline 'Safety risks as airport workers stop showing up'. Print Edition | Subscribe