Is the government shutdown causing TSA wait times to soar at U.S. airports?
The partial shutdown, now over three weeks long and officially the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, has indeed disrupted a few major airports over the past few days. One concourse at Miami International Airport was closed over the weekend, and one terminal security checkpoint at Houston George Bush airport is currently closed, while travelers at Atlanta's airport endured security wait times of over an hour during peak periods on Monday.
All of these disruptions are the result of staffing issues with Transportation Security Administration employees. Like many federal workers, TSA employees are not getting paid during the government shutdown. And, apparently, some TSA workers are responding to the shutdown by calling in sick, or even quitting their jobs.
The TSA said that the rate of employees not coming into work on Monday, January 14, was more than double what is normally expected. "TSA experienced a national rate of 6.8 percent of unscheduled absences compared to a 2.5 percent rate one year ago on the same day, January 15, 2018," the agency said in a press release today.
The average airport wait time at U.S. security checkpoints nationwide is about 15 minutes. But TSA data indicates that some airports far exceeded that average on Monday: The maximum wait times in the regular TSA checkpoint lines was 28 minutes in Miami, 29 minutes in Honolulu, 41 minutes at Dallas-Love, and a whopping 88 minutes in Atlanta.
Even so, the TSA said that Monday's wait times were well within their normal range around the country: "Overall, 99.1 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes; 94.3 percent of passengers less than 15 minutes."
Most travelers couldn't care less about the average wait times nationally, or wait times from previous days for that matter, however. They want to know what to expect in terms of wait times on the specific day they're traveling, at the specific airport they're using. To get such information, the TSA recommends that travelers download and use the official
MyTSA app, which provides estimates on security wait times at airports around the country. But the TSA app is far from perfect.
Are the Estimated TSA Wait Times Accurate?
The estimated airport wait times reported by the MyTSA app are crowdsourced. In other words, the information stems from travelers in the airports reporting how long their checkpoint wait times are. So the estimates are only as trustworthy as the people entering their wait times, and the TSA makes no guarantees.
"Wait times are based on crowdsourced data provided by passengers and we cannot ensure their accuracy," the TSA warns.
One problem is that often, there don't seem to be all that many travelers submitting their wait times. Take Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which is the busiest airport in the U.S. At about 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the MyTSA app said that a single traveler (ONE!) had reported a checkpoint wait time of 21 to 30 minutes. No other wait times seem to have been submitted within the past two hours, or at least none others were presented on the app.
The MyTSA app also offers historical data, indicating that the standard wait times at Atlanta are typically less than 15 minutes at this time on a Tuesday. But historical data isn't particularly helpful to travelers forced to cope with unprecedented situations, such as a government shutdown with low TSA worker staffing.
Are There Other Ways to Get Estimated Airport Wait Times?
In addition to MyTSA, the websites of many U.S. airports themselves list their own estimated wait times, and they update them throughout the day in real time. The official Atlanta airport wait time was listed at "less than 15 minutes" at all four checkpoints on Tuesday morning.
Some airports offer more specific information regarding TSA wait times. For example, at around 10 a.m. on Tuesday, New York City's JFK airport was reporting security wait times ranging from 2 minutes (at Terminal 7) up to 17 minutes (Terminal 5).
The estimated wait times from airports are often more detailed and helpful than what's available at the MyTSA app — which on Tuesday stated that one traveler at JFK reported a wait time of 1 to 10 minutes. Again, this information was based on only one traveler reporting it, and it is unclear which terminal it is from. The app also said that the "standard wait times are typically 15 - 30 min." at JFK at around 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, based on historical data.
Not all airports list their current TSA checkpoint wait times, however. So another kind of resource travelers should consider is a third-party app with estimated airport wait times. The options include MiFlight and FlightSpeak, though their wait times are crowdsourced — and possibly inaccurate at airports where there isn't a community submitting regular updates.
Finally, it's worth checking airport social media accounts for updates and estimated wait times. Twitter gives airports a quick and easy way to alert travelers about longer wait times and other issues.