As reported by Mary Wisniewski for the Chicago Tribune
The continuing government shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history, is starting to affect airport operations and has cut the flow of federal money to transit agencies, including the CTA.
The shutdown affects 800,000 federal workers, including Transportation Security Administration agents at the nation’s airports and Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers and inspectors. Some workers are on furlough, while others are required to work even though they had to miss their first paycheck Friday.
Among the agencies affected by the shutdown is the CTA, which uses federal funding to pay for construction projects like station renovations.
The shutdown is already affecting some airport operations, though no problems have been reported yet in Chicago. The TSA has seen an increase in workers calling in sick, and Miami International Airport plans to cut off access to one of its terminals over the weekend in order to send TSA workers to busier checkpoints.
Chicago’s Aviation Department is talking with the TSA and is ready with contingency plans if they are needed, spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said.
Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which represents 32 unions that cover transportation workers, said he thinks the nation’s transportation system is currently safe and would not recommend that people avoid flying. But he said safety is an “ongoing mission,” and every day the shutdown drags on is a cause for concern.
“We demand the highest safety and security standards for our transportation network, and rightfully so,” Willis said. With the shutdown reaching its 21st day Friday, “we think those standards are under duress,” Willis said.
Willis noted the nation’s air traffic control system, for example, is already understaffed and said workers not getting paid is causing “incredible stress.” He said that other federal workers who inspect airlines and maintenance facilities and certify aircraft manufacturing are furloughed.
“Over time, that’s going to have a detrimental effect on our ability to maintain the high standards the American people require,” Willis said.
Willis said that the shutdown also is affecting transit and commuter rail, with grants being suspended to transit agencies. Ninety percent of the workforce at the Federal Transit Administration is on furlough.
CTA spokesman Brian Steele said day-to-day operations at the agency are not affected, but it is not getting federal grant funding to pay for ongoing expenses for construction projects.
“If we don’t see a resolution shortly, CTA will need to look at how we utilize our limited resources,” Steele said.
Steele said the delay is not sustainable, and the agency hopes to see a resolution soon.
President Donald Trump wants $5.7 billion to build a wall on the border with Mexico, and he has threatened to keep the government shut down until he gets it. Democrats say that the wall would be a poor use of federal money, and talks to reopen the government this week have failed.
TSA workers are considered essential federal employees and had to go to work Friday, though they were not paid. The percentage of TSA workers who called in sick on Thursday was 5.1 percent, compared to a 3.3 percent unscheduled absence rate on the same day last year, TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said in a Tweet.
Bilello said the TSA is working with stakeholders and industry partners to look at efforts to consolidate officers and operations. TSA agents are on the lower end of the federal pay scale, earning between $36,000 and $43,000 annually.
Lines at the nation’s airports have been normal, Bilello said. On Thursday, 99.9 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes, Bilello said. Security wait times at O’Hare International and Midway airports are at 15 minutes or less, the city’s Aviation Department said.
“We are humbled by the acts of kindness and support from industry and the public, who clearly recognize and admire our officers’ efforts,” Bilello tweeted. “TSA will continue to conduct the critical work necessary to secure the nation’s transportation systems.”
FAA spokesman Gregory Martin assured the traveling public that the nation’s airspace system is safe, though air traffic controllers and technicians are working without pay.
“We are allocating FAA resources based on risk assessment to meet all safety critical functions,” Martin said.
Earlier this month, the Air Line Pilots Association International, which represents 61,000 pilots, sent a letter to Trump urging him to end the shutdown and warning that it is threatening the safe operations of the airspace system.