Airport chief, Georgia lawmakers sound alarms on shutdown impact

With a holiday weekend upon us and the Super Bowl less than three weeks away, officials are sounding alarms at the government shutdown’s potential impact on the world’s busiest airport and expressing dismay at the federal employees who are going without pay.

At the start of the workweek on Monday, some passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport waited in security lines for up to two hours. Airport general manager John Selden said more crowds are expected this weekend due to the federal Martin Luther King Jr. observance on Jan 21. Looking ahead, between 110,000 to 115,000 air passengers are expected to pass through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on the Monday after the Super Bowl — far exceeding the 64,000 who went through security on Monday. Also affected by the shutdown are U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoints, where waits can be more than an hour for non-U.S. citizens and close to an hour for citizens, Selden said.

TSA officers are among the federal employees who have been working without pay since the federal shutdown began Dec. 22. Airports here and elsewhere have dealt with resulting staff shortages as some have called out sick.

“Many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations,” the agency said in a statement on Wednesday.

Only 18 of 27 security lanes in Atlanta's domestic terminal were open Monday, so busloads of passengers were shuttled to the international terminal to manage the crowds.

“Atlanta Hartsfield was the No. 1 TSA hotspot on Monday,” Selden said during Wednesday’s meeting of the Atlanta City Council’s transportation committee.

Monday evening, TSA flew 20 officers in — who are also not being paid — to help handle the lines at the Atlanta airport, which helped keep wait times shorter on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. The airport is providing free parking and lunch to more than 500 TSA employees who have been on the job not knowing when their next check is coming, with concessionaires chipping in. Airline staff members are helping to direct passengers at checkpoints, Selden said.

“We’re all hoping that the shutdown will be fixed,” he said.

The prospect of huge crowds and TSA staffing shortages sent U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson to the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“We’ve got a Super Bowl coming to Atlanta, Ga., in about three weeks. The biggest tourism event in the world this year. What if the largest airport in the world, that’s going to bring people to the largest football game in the world, goes out of business because the TSA strikes?” he said. “Then you’ve just cost millions of dollars to the United States of America, my home city of Atlanta and others.”

He excoriated his colleagues for “not doing a damned thing while the American people are suffering.” Isakson returned to Washington after Gov. Brian Kemp’s swearing-in on Monday, and had few answers for the constituents, including several TSA workers, who approached him in the airport.

“We’re just doing the wrong thing, punishing the wrong people, and it’s not right,” the longtime Republican lawmaker said.

Newly elected U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath discussed the shutdown during a CNN interview Wednesday afternoon.

“Americans deserve to be paid for the work that they do,” said McBath, a Democrat who represents Georgia’s 6th district. “Democracy is failing the American people at this point.”

She said Democrats are trying to get things going again but aren’t willing to budge on funding President Donald Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Governing means compromise on both sides. It’s definitely not happening at this point,” she said. “I can definitely say it’s not for lack of trying. We are trying with every fiber of our beings to make sure democracy works.”

The AJC’s Jim Galloway contributed to this article.

Passenger count expected at security checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson

Thursday: 70,000

Friday: 75,000

Monday after Super Bowl: 110,000-115,000

Previous record set Friday before Memorial Day 2018: 93,082

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson