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How The Government Shutdown Is Affecting Air Travel


The shutdown might be causing longer security lines at airports around the country. The Transportation Security Administration confirms that a growing number of its employees are calling in sick. But the president and the Department of Homeland Security deny a sickout is having much of an effect on air travel.

NPR's David Schaper is at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Travelers there are increasingly concerned about their plans as the shutdown drags on. And, David, first, can you describe the situation at O'Hare? Are security lines actually longer?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Actually, Audie, today, they're not noticeably so. This was a busy weekend of travel. And over the weekend, I've heard lines were a little bit longer. You know, it was the end of the holiday season, and a lot of people are getting back to work, so they're traveling for work purposes, possibly. But the major airlines that operate here at O'Hare say they haven't had any major problems.

There have been problems reported elsewhere around the country. There have been some delays and long lines and a few people even missing flights because of the long lines, so they say. And some airline officials told me they are getting increasingly concerned about the impacts of this shutdown on operations in the future if it continues.

Illinois Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth was here at O'Hare today talking with reporters. And she says she, too, is increasingly concerned that air travel will be affected.


TAMMY DUCKWORTH: I'm very concerned about security. It's not affecting O'Hare as much, but at other airports around the country, many TSA agents are calling off sick in order to go work other jobs because they have to put food on the table. They have to meet rent - all of that. And so at a time when the nation's security is at stake, we're actually losing the number of TSA agents that are on the job, and that is deeply concerning to me.

CORNISH: David, what about that? What about TSA agents themselves? What are you hearing from them?

SCHAPER: Well, none of the TSA agents I did talk to today were willing to go on tape. And they haven't missed a paycheck yet, but they will Friday if this shutdown continues. And a lot of them are getting nervous about that. They say they can't really afford to miss a couple of weeks' pay, even if it's going to be made up later.

There is one gentleman who told me he doesn't agree with the president and is not willing to go without pay to get the wall. He says he wants secure borders, but he needs to be paid.

CORNISH: And passengers - are they feeling the effects or maybe changing their travel plans because of the shutdown?

SCHAPER: Well, I did talk to one gentleman from Boston who was flying here to Chicago. He said he had smooth sailing this morning in the airport in Boston. And he has a lot of travel planned early in this new year and trips, really, the next couple of weeks in a row. So while he says he's not feeling the effects yet, he is getting increasingly nervous that there may be some impacts in the future.

Another passenger I talked to, Mary Rose Alexander of here in Chicago, was headed to Phoenix on business. And she, too, is getting increasingly concerned.

MARY ROSE ALEXANDER: I'm concerned about the lines. I'm concerned about the safety. And I'm definitely - yeah, I'm definitely concerned about it. I'd like the shutdown to end.

SCHAPER: And she and others say that they're going to start trying to plan to get to the airport earlier in case these lines get longer.

CORNISH: Are there any other signs of, I guess, government functions at the airports that have been affected?

SCHAPER: Well, air traffic controllers are on the job, and they will continue to be so. But like the TSA agents, they are not getting paid, so there could be problems as they go without paychecks if this shutdown continues.

Also, a lot of the airlines need inspections, safety certifications and even training programs. A statement from the group Airlines for America, which represents airlines of Washington, D.C., says that some carriers are beginning to see the effects of the government shutdown, specifically regarding the certification of new aircraft and the implementation of new training programs for pilots.

And so they are increasingly concerned that their operations could be affected in the very near future. And they're urging elected officials to reach an agreement to reopen the government as quickly as possible.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Schaper at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. David, thank you for your reporting.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.