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Dulles closes screening lanes, lines sprawl in Atlanta as shutdown strains air travel

At Washington Dulles International Airport, seen here in 2014, TSA, airport and airline officials decided to “consolidate checkpoints” Monday because of the absences related to the government shutdown. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Washington Dulles International on Monday became the latest airport to close screening lanes because of absences by unpaid TSA agents, adding to a pileup as the 24-day-old government shutdown strains air travel across the country.

Miami International and Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport similarly announced checkpoint closures over the weekend because of a higher-than-usual rate of no-shows by TSA agents. Meanwhile, passengers at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — the busiest in the world — were stuck in security lines more than an hour long Monday morning after closures of at least six security lanes, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.

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“We are down a few security lanes because of the shutdown,” an Atlanta airport spokesperson told POLITICO. “The lines are long but there is a continuous flow; they are moving.”

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The news came three days after TSA agents missed their first paychecks since the shutdown began. By Monday, the number of unscheduled absences at the agency had doubled to 7.6 percent, compared with 3.2 percent for the same day the previous year.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, laid the blame for airport delays and reports of baggage screeners calling out sick or quitting directly at President Donald Trump’s feet, saying it’s due to “President Trump’s childish refusal to reopen the government unless he gets his way.”

“Not only will continuing the shutdown increase airport delays and hinder commerce, it could have a negative impact on aviation security if a resolution does not come quickly. I hope President Trump realizes that being responsible for the longest government shutdown in history is no badge of honor — it will have untold negative consequences for months to come. Until he realizes his error, the American people should put the blame squarely on his shoulders,” Thompson said.

Meanwhile, the shutdown forced TSA to cancel training for 323 front-line employees — baggage screeners included. Basic training classes considered “mission critical” continue, but 18 supervisory and advanced training classes for TSA workers have been nixed, according to a TSA spokesperson.

At Dulles, TSA, airport and airline officials decided Monday morning to “consolidate checkpoints” because of the absences, TSA spokesperson Michael Bilello said. He partially attributed the absences to this weekend’s snowstorm but acknowledged that it was “slightly higher than a normal call-out rate.” However, all lanes at Dulles had been reopened by around lunchtime on Monday.

TSA has vowed that airport security will not be compromised by the shutdown. It has also tried to soften the financial blow to screeners by pledging to compensate agents for the first day of the shutdown and provide $ 500 bonuses this week.

Still, most airports expect that TSA staffing issues will worsen and, like Miami and others, have developed contingency plans to help them manage security lanes, Christopher Bidwell of Airports Council International-North America said.

The airports council and House Democrats have urged TSA to find another way to pay screeners. For example, it could consider tapping into security fee revenue that airline passengers pay as part of the price of a ticket.

However, TSA has said it doesn’t have access to that money. Congress annually takes more than a billion dollars of TSA fee revenue for general deficit reduction and the remainder is required to be deposited in the Treasury, Bilello told POLITICO.

Another group of essential personnel also working without pay — air traffic controllers — are also victims of the shutdown. Their union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, has filed suit against the government over the matter. A court hearing on a request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction was supposed to be held Monday, but it has been rescheduled for Tuesday due to snowy conditions in the region.

Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misidentified Rep. Bennie Thompson’s state. He represents Mississippi.

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