While waiting for her daughter at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Tuesday afternoon, Dawn Bierman parked her luggage, looked around and wondered: “Where are all the people?”
Following media reports that a partial government shutdown since Dec. 22 has crippled air travel nationwide due to security staffing issues, Terminal 1 at MSP Airport seemed almost cavernous. And security checkpoint lines were moving along nicely.
“There’s no line,” said Bierman, a Rochester resident who booked her shuttle an hour earlier to make sure she’d have enough time to catch her flight to Los Angeles. “I am very surprised, happily so.”
Elsewhere, a shortage of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security officers prompted Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to shutter a terminal, and painfully long security lines were reported at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. The average wait time in Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport, was 88 minutes on Monday — 55 minutes for passengers with TSA PreCheck.
In Minneapolis, no such dysfunction surfaced just yet. The average wait time in security lines Monday was 20 minutes, and four minutes for passengers with PreCheck.
Seth Boffeli, of Eagan, said he showed up 2 ½ hours early Sunday for a trip to Washington, D.C. But it took only 20 minutes to get through security. “TSA was friendly and efficient, but stressed,” he said via Twitter.
But this could change as the weekend approaches, especially because many travelers will likely have Martin Luther King Day off on Monday. The current calm could also shift as more TSA officers and others either call in sick or look for a new job should the shutdown drag on and their finances grow increasingly constrained.
For now, TSA checkpoints at both MSP terminals Tuesday were fully staffed as 320 to 350 officers worked without pay, according to Cliff Van Leuven, TSA’s federal security director for Minnesota.
“We have not had an issue with sick calls as of yet,” said TSA agent Celia Hahn, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 899, the union that represents TSA screeners here.
On Monday, TSA said it experienced a national rate of 6.8 percent of unscheduled absences compared with 2.5 percent a year ago. The agency did not break out absentee figures by individual airports, citing security concerns.
The shutdown affects air traffic controllers — also considered essential personnel. So they’re working without pay, too.
On Tuesday, members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association who work at MSP handed out leaflets outside Terminal 1 to gain support from the traveling public.
“Overall, people have been very positive,” said air traffic controller Thayer Davis IV, who represents about 40 members of the association at MSP. One man grabbed a flier Tuesday and declared, “Stop the extortion!” before hustling into the terminal.
Davis said the shutdown has been difficult. “When you’re at work, you don’t need the distraction and extra stress,” he said, noting he’s proud of the “professionalism and teamwork” air traffic controllers display “day in and day out.”
He added that no air traffic controllers called in sick Saturday, Sunday or Monday.
TSA’s Van Leuven said that Tuesday is normally a sleepy day, and there’s usually a bit of a lull in winter travel between the holiday season and spring break. For the time being, he said morale among TSA staff at MSP is good, and many travelers have thanked officers for their service. Some passengers have given them gift cards, which are informally doled out by passing a hat among workers.
It’s unclear why Minneapolis-St. Paul has avoided some of the issues experienced at other airports. Van Leuven speculated, “That Midwestern work ethic may have something to do with it.”