TSA Wait Times Are Getting Worse, and Smaller Hubs Feel the Squeeze

TSA wait times shutdown

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More than a month into the federal government shutdown, more unpaid TSA agents are staying home from work than ever. And travelers are paying the price with climbing wait times.

The problems first arose earlier this month, just a few weeks into the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22. With no paychecks coming in, the number of TSA agents missing work has steadily risen over the ensuing weeks. And so have wait times at TSA security checkpoints at airports big and small.

After downplaying the severity of the callouts for weeks, the TSA has started to admit it’s a serious issue. Callouts peaked on Saturday as 10% of the TSA’s workforce stayed home. That’s up from the norm of 2% to 3.5% the same time last year. The agency now admits that “many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations.”

The TSA is employing some extraordinary measures to keep security lines moving. It’s called in officers from National Deployment Force – normally reserved to help during natural disasters – to help at some of the nation’s largest airports, CNBC reports. That includes Newark (EWR), Atlanta (ATL), and New York City – LaGuardia (LGA).

And for the most part, the nation’s largest international airports on the East and West Coast are weathering the TSA’s workforce woes fairly well. After the TSA shipped in reinforcements, wait times at ATL – the largest airport in the world by passenger traffic – have subsided after spiking last week. Other major hubs like New York City-JFK (JFK), Los Angeles (LAX), and San Francisco (SFO) have not reported drastic increases.

Look at our interactive graphic tracking TSA wait times at 36 of the country’s biggest airports, and you’ll see it’s the smaller, major international airports that are suffering most. Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) reported maximum wait times in the standard TSA screening line of 45 minutes and 46 minutes on Saturday and Monday, respectively – the longest waits in the country on both days. New Orleans (MSY), Seattle (SEA), Tampa (TPA), and Miami (MIA) have all reported major spikes.



How to Beat Long Lines at the Airport

Whether you’re worried about traveling during the shutdown or afterward, there are some tools that can help you beat the long lines.

The first is TSA PreCheck, a government-run trusted traveler program. This gets you in a dedicated lane – and as our graphic shows, it can pay off with drastically shorter wait times to clear security. It also allows you to keep a coat, belt, and shoes on, making the whole experience more relaxed. A five-year membership costs $85, but you can get that for free if you carry one of several travel rewards credit cards.

Global Entry, the program that gets you through customs and immigration faster, comes with PreCheck. That makes it a better choice than signing up for PreCheck individually, but applications and interviews for Global Entry are on hold during the shutdown. TSA PreCheck applications, however, are still being processed during the shutdown. 

Another great option is CLEAR, a privately run security program. Whether you’ve got TSA PreCheck or not, CLEAR allows you to bypass the initial TSA checkpoint officer and cut to the front of the line. That can make a massive difference, and it’s why CLEAR is our favorite airport time saver. Memberships generally cost $179 per year, which is steep. But there are some easy ways to cut that cost in half or more.

And while it may seem duplicative,  holding memberships in both CLEAR and TSA PreCheck is the most powerful duo to get through security. You’ll cut to the front of the TSA PreCheck line with CLEAR, then get through security screenings faster with your PreCheck membership.

Don’t want to pony up for a membership in either program? You can scope out wait times at your local airport with the MyTSA app and at least have an idea of what you’re in for.

Bottom Line

Things are trending in the wrong direction for the TSA and travelers. While not every airport is feeling the squeeze, it’s clear the shutdown is taking its toll.

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Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.

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