Shutdown-Induced Bottlenecks at Nation's Airports Shows Folly of Letting the Federal Government Run Things

Farming out airport security and air traffic control would help to immunize air travel from the Congressional budget chaos.



The federal government has been partially shut down now for 32 days, and nowhere is feeling the strain quite like the nation's airports, where tens of thousands of essential federal employees are required to show up to work regardless of whether they're getting paid.

On Monday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that 10 percent of its agents were absent from their posts, up from three percent in the same time period last year. Agents are reportedly playing hooky to work jobs that actually pay them.

The result has been longer wait times, closed security checkpoints, and collapsing morale among those still on the job. Headlines are filled with stories of TSA agents relying on donations of free food or playing explicit, uncensored rap music at checkpoints.

Holding it together only slightly better are the nation's air traffic controllers, some 10,500 of whom have been working without pay and without the aid the 3,000 "non-essential" support staff during the shutdown.

So far absenteeism has not been a problem, says Jim Marinitti, an air traffic controller and vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the controllers' union. The longer the shutdown drags, the more likely these controllers will start looking for an exit, he says.

"The workforce stayed strong through the first paycheck. Now facing a second missed paycheck, the reports are coming that people are looking elsewhere," says Marinitti. "Nearly 20 percent of our workforce is eligible to retire, there's no incentive for them to stay."

The shutdown has also resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—who operates the country's air traffic control system—closing its academy for air traffic controllers, the effects of which will reverberate long after the shutdown is over says Marinitti.

While it's difficult to feel any sympathy at all for the professional privacy violators at the TSA, the fact that vital air traffic controllers are not getting paid is concerning to say the least. It's also an unfortunate consequence of federalizing so much of crucial airport operations, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation expert at the Reason Foundation (which publishes this website).

The immediate problem with this, says Feigenbaum, is that these functions are funded on a discretionary basis, meaning Congress has to approve funding every year.

"If there's not a budget, or if there's a government shutdown—and we have both right now—those folks are not going to get paid," Feigenbaum tells Reason, saying that spinning off these programs from direct federal control would eliminate a lot of the pain a shutdown imposes on both workers and travelers.

There are already a number of airports in the country that have contracted out their passenger screenings to private companies through the TSA's Screening Partnership Program (SPP), helping to immunize them from the effects of the shutdown.

This includes San Francisco International Airport (the busiest airport to participate in the SPP program), where some 1,200 privately employed security screeners have continued to be paid despite all the budget drama in Washington.

According to Feigenbaum, more airports could easily jump on the bandwagon, and contract out their security screening services, although federal regulations ensure that the most noxious parts of airport security, from groin pat-downs to requirements to remove your shoes are the same at SPP airports.

Spinning off air traffic control operations to a separate, nonprofit entity would be much harder to achieve. A bill to do just that was rejected by the last Republican-controlled Congress, despite the explicit support of both the House Transportation Committee Chairman and President Donald Trump. Changes of a similar reform passing anytime soon are highly unlikely.

In addition to the instability that comes with making airport security and air traffic control federally-provided services, Feigenbaum says there is an inherent conflict of interest too: the same agencies that are responsible for providing the service, are also expected to provide oversight.

"The regulatory side of the TSA screeners is going to have a tendency to go easy on the operations side of the TSA screeners. The question is if there is accuracy there," says Feigenbaum, noting that it is a similar problem with the FAA, which runs air traffic control and is also the nation's top aviation safety regulator.

If the shutdown drags on for much longer, problems at America's airports will only worsen. More and more TSA agents will stop showing up to work, while air traffic controllers might opt for retirement or leaving their profession altogether.

Contracting out these services would ensure that they don't come to a screeching halt every time the government shuts down. Putting that distance between the government and security and safety services would also improve oversight and—at least in the case of air traffic control—improve efficiency by making the adoption of new technology easier.

And while these changes are not something that will happen overnight, it's a nice thing to think about while you're in a 45 minute security line at the airport.