Long security lines plague Hartsfield-Jackson amid federal shutdown

Atlanta airport advises passengers get to terminal three hours early

The impact of the government shutdown hit travelers at the world's busiest airport hard Monday morning, with many waiting in security checkpoint lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International for up to an hour and a half.

The massive delays caused some to miss their flights, as lines stretched through the airport atrium and around ticket counters and baggage claim.

“It’s just horrible,” said traveler Peter Phillips, after waiting for more than an hour. He was headed to a conference in Kansas City, and worried he would miss his flight and the start of his seminar.

“A lot of people in line have missed their flights,” Phillips said. “There needs to be some sort of Plan B when this stuff happens.”

Hartsfield-Jackson spokeswoman Elise Durham said Mondays are always busy, “But today, we did feel the impact of the federal shutdown more than we have thus far.”

January 14, 2019 Atlanta: Security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport stretched more than an hour long Monday morning, Jan. 14, 2019 causing travelers to miss flights amid the partial federal shutdown. At a time when the world’s busiest airport has its biggest crowds, there were at least six security lanes closed at domestic terminal security checkpoints, while passengers waited in lines that stretched through the terminal and were winding through baggage claim. The long lines signaled staffing shortages at security checkpoints, as TSA officers have been working without pay since the federal shutdown began Dec. 22. Airport officials normally advise travelers to get to the airport two hours before domestic flights, but on Monday morning Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Andrew Gobeil advised that travelers should consult with their airlines. Travelers may need to get to the airport even earlier due to the long waits. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

icon to expand image

In addition to the Atlanta airport, Transportation Security Administration staffing shortages caused airports in Houston and Miami to temporarily close terminals.

TSA officers have been working without pay since the federal shutdown began Dec. 22 and missed their first paycheck Friday. The American Federation of Government Employees, representing airport security officers, said last week that some workers had already quit. Others were not reporting for duty.

TSA said its rate of unscheduled absences was 7.6 percent on Monday morning, more than twice the rate of 3.2 percent a year ago.

At the peak Monday morning period when the airport has its biggest crowds, there were at least six security lanes closed at Hartsfield-Jackson's domestic terminal security checkpoints. TSA said that it had "made adjustments to maximize all available operational resources" at the Atlanta airport.

Hartsfield-Jackson, Washington Dulles, Miami and Houston are exercising “contingency plans to uphold aviation security standards,” according to TSA.

“Travelers should contact their airline before traveling because times may be affected,” a TSA spokesman said.

Hartsfield-Jackson advised passengers get to the airport three hours before flights to allow time to clear security.

Delta also advised getting to the Atlanta airport three hours early, while still recommending passengers arrive two hours early for domestic flights at other airports around the country. The airline said its employees are helping to manage security lines and answer customers’ questions.

Wendell Baldwin, a business traveler who flies about once a month, said he “knew there was going to be a challenge flying out,” due to the federal shutdown and workers calling in sick. He got to the airport 2.5 hours before his flight Monday, to make sure he had enough time to get through security.

“I should be able to make it,” he said, adding that he has another flight scheduled next week and would likely get to the airport two-and-a-half to three hours before departure.

“End the shutdown. That’s the root cause of this whole thing,” Baldwin said. “I don’t blame these [TSA] folks. They’re not going to get paid. They’re just doing what they gotta do.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the city is closely monitoring the situation. “I ask that travelers pack their patience as they head to the airports, and thank the dedicated TSA employees who selflessly show up to secure our airport and our city, even amid the financial hardships and uncertainty this shutdown has caused them,” Bottoms said in a written statement.

As travelers waited, dozens of air traffic controllers handed out leaflets to people walking in and out of the terminal Monday and held up signs calling for an end to the federal shutdown.

January 14, 2019 Atlanta: Air traffic controller, Rafael Naveira (right) and fellow controllers rallied at the north domestic terminal. Air Traffic controllers rallied and handed out leaflets to travelers on Monday Jan. 14, 2019 at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport domestic terminals calling for an end to the federal shutdown. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

icon to expand image

“People are going to be frustrated with the long lines,” said air traffic controller Dan McCabe. He said controllers also want to educate passengers about other impacts of the shutdown.

“We just want people to understand controllers are real people with real financial obligations, who worry about how to pay for mortgages and child care,” McCabe said.

Pointing toward the lines in the terminal, he said: “That’s insanity.”

Additionally, a security breach earlier this month raised concerns.

On Jan. 2, a gun passed through security at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport without being detected and was taken by a passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight to Japan, according to officials.

The passenger flew from Atlanta to Tokyo's Narita International Airport, and disclosed what occurred to Delta, which notified the Transportation Security Administration.

TSA acknowledged that "a passenger did in fact pass through a standard screening TSA checkpoint with a firearm at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on January 2. TSA will hold those responsible appropriately accountable."

The agency said “standard procedures were not followed,” and the gun was not discovered.

A survey by Airfarewatchdog.com of 1,000 travelers found that 62 percent are concerned about air travel safety in the wake of hundreds of TSA officers calling out sick. The survey also indicated that 47 percent of travelers think airlines should be required to pay for private security during times of a government shutdown.

Even during normal operations, TSA has had other instances of failing to stop guns from getting through security.

In 2015, TSA investigated a report that a loaded semi-automatic handgun was carried by a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight from Atlanta to Chicago and was not detected at the security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson. Incidents of missed guns at other airport security checkpoints around the country have also been reported over the years.

Several years ago, TSA was criticized for failures to detect mock explosives and weapons during tests, and ended up retraining airport screeners around the country.

Despite the shortage of workers, TSA said it is still focused on effective security.

“Security standards remain in place and have not been compromised,” the agency said in a written statement.

What’s changed?

Travelers waited up to an hour and a half in security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson on Monday morning amid the federal government shutdown.

Under normal circumstances, the vast majority of passengers get through security in less than half an hour. For example, on Sunday, TSA said 99.1 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes.

On Monday, TSA said its rate of unscheduled absences among workers hit 7.6 percent, more than double the 3.2 percent rate a year ago.

About the Author

Editors' Picks