Wait times at Sea-Tac haven't been much different than usual. That could change after Friday, when federal employees will miss their first paycheck if the government is still shut down. Port of Seattle Commission President Stephanie Bowman said Tuesday that the Trump administration should end the shutdown so these workers can be paid.
Don’t panic. Don’t freak out. And don’t head to the airport five hours early — unless, that is, you really like hanging around at the gate.
Perry Cooper, a spokesman for the Port of Seattle, which runs Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, said Tuesday that travelers don’t need to get to the airport far earlier than usual to ensure they make it through security lines to catch their flights during the federal government’s partial shutdown. The airport’s guidelines are the same as always: arrive two hours before takeoff for domestic flights, three hours for international flights.
Since federal employees’ furlough began Dec. 22, the longest security line so far has taken one hour to get through, and at some points, it’s taken 30 to 45 minutes, Cooper said. However, “the average amount of time it’s taking to get through security checkpoints is 4-12 minutes, which is about what it usually is.”
Employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), who are working without pay during the shutdown, have reportedly been calling in sick more frequently since the shutdown began. TSA union officials have said that’s caused delays at some airports; Cooper said Sea-Tac isn’t one of them.
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The Port expects that could change after Friday, when the 2,000 federal employees who work at the airport will miss their first paycheck if the government is still shut down, Port of Seattle Commission President Stephanie Bowman said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“Workers who are deemed essential to our nation’s safety and productivity deserve their full paychecks this Friday. They did not waver in their commitment to the public good. We need to pay them,” Bowman said in a statement issued by the Port on Tuesday afternoon. “This partial federal shutdown is not making our borders or our facilities safer or more secure. The Trump administration needs to end this shutdown now.”
The government shutdown, which began when budget negotiations between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration stalled over the president’s demand that Congress fund a wall along the southern border, has left approximately 800,000 federal employees on furlough or working without pay.
Bowman and other commissioners are discussing “outside-of-the-box” ways to assist affected employees, such as partnering with local nonprofits and financial institutions to secure short-term loans, should the shutdown last.
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The Port of Seattle has been hiring outside contract workers for several years to handle pre-screening and activities such as directing people to the shortest line and reminding them to take off their shoes and remove their electronics from their luggage, in an effort to keep lines moving, Cooper said. Contract employees also work at other “pinch points throughout the airport, such as the garage, cellphone lot, bag claim and information booths,” he said.
In addition, the airport has been using detection dogs in screening lines to make things run more smoothly and efficiently, Cooper said.
Sea-Tac uses outside help because it’s been one of the fastest-growing airports in the nation and because it’s had a hard time retaining TSA employees due to the region’s strong economy, Cooper said.
Typically, the contractors are brought in during summer and the holiday travel season, but Cooper said Port commissioners will soon decide whether to extend the contract through February or March in case of an extended shutdown.
A recorded message on TSA’s media line said that, of the more than 2 million passengers screened at U.S. airports Monday, 99.9 percent of them waited less than 30 minutes to get through security and 92.9 percent were screened in less than 15 minutes. The recording also said that, on Monday, the rate of unscheduled absences at TSA was 4.6 percent, compared with 3.8 percent on the same date a year ago.
Cooper said the airport’s configuration means security lines can sometimes snake around corners, making it impossible for passengers to see the checkpoint from their vantage point. That can cause anxiety, he said, but it doesn’t mean the line isn’t moving. Sea-Tac now has a mobile app that allows users to get real-time information about security wait times.