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Is It Safe To Fly During The Government Shutdown? You Might Want To Stay Grounded

If you're keeping track, the country is nearly three weeks into a government shutdown, with no end yet on the horizon. President Donald Trump's inability to rake in $5.7 billion in funding for his border security proposal — which includes a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico — resulted in a government shutdown. While politicians scurry to try and find a way to get the country up and running again, people have pertinent questions about everyday living in the meantime. For instance, is it safe to fly during the government shutdown? Well, uh, you might want to stay grounded.

The problem is simply that a lot of the workers whose job it is to keep travelers safe from a number of risks aren't getting paid, and thus many aren't coming to work. The organization that people are most familiar with when it comes to airport function and security is probably the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). What you might not know, though, is that the TSA falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and therefore all agents are government employees. While some government employees are deemed "non essential" and furloughed during the shutdown, that's not the case for TSA agents, who have to work even though the government isn't running and they're not getting paid (although screeners will likely receive back pay after appropriations have begun again). However, as federal employees look ahead to missing their paychecks, many are reportedly deciding it's not worth it to work for no pay, and are calling out or work or even quitting all together, per CNN.

In terms of flight safety, this could be a huge problem: if there aren't enough trained employees to keep things running and safe, what happens? An unnamed veteran TSA official told CNN that if the effects of limited resources are not being seen in the airports, then the TSA is cutting corners somewhere. "If you're not seeing long wait times at airports, there's something on the security side they're not doing," the source said. TSA officials told the publication what will likely happen is fewer pat downs, expedited screenings, or even looser standards for checked bags.

In a statement to Elite Daily, the TSA denies that there's been any significant uptick in call outs, noting that the increase from the same date the previous year is only about 1 percent. The statement says,

TSA data shows approximately a 1 percentage point uptick in call-out rates compared to this time last year. This statistic does not comport with the unofficial and anecdotal narrative others have been providing to media outlets. To be clear, there has not been a significant increase in call-out rates to date. ... There has been no degradation in security effectiveness and average wait times are well within TSA standards.
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But the potential risk isn't only on the security and screening side. There are a few behind-the-scenes employees that the aviation industry has reportedly lost in the shutdown that could contribute to safety issues. According to TIME, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspectors have been furloughed during the shutdown, meaning there's no one double checking the planes until things are obviously bad. Inspectors are reportedly only being called in when issues arise, but the normal routine checks and maintenance are being taken care of at the discretion of the airline companies, according to furloughed inspector Chuck Banks. “Every day the government stays shut down, it gets less safe to fly," Banks told TIME. In a statement to Elite Daily, an FAA spokesperson says that travelers can be "assured that our nation's airspace system is safe," and that air traffic controllers and technicians are working without pay.

"We are allocating FAA resources based on risk assessment to meet all safety critical functions," the statement says. "We continue to proactively conduct risk assessment, and when we identify an issue we act and recall our inspectors and engineers, as appropriate, to address them."

Moreover, as the shutdown continues, some officers are reportedly quitting altogether, per USA Today. TSA agents are heavily trained in screening fliers and losing them could pose a "massive security risk," according to Hydrick Thomas, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) TSA Council president. The TSA did not answer Elite Daily's specific questions on the subject.

In a Jan. 8 statement, Thomas said that each day of the shutdown he's getting calls from his union members about their "need for a paycheck," adding that many have quit or are considering it. He warned that if it continues it could pose a huge "risk for American travelers." Thomas said,

Every day I’m getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck. Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown. The loss of officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers since we don’t have enough trainees in the pipeline or the ability to process new hires.”

That's not really comforting to those of us who have to travel in the very near future. But, on the bright side there is action being taken. The AFGE filed a lawsuit against the government on Dec. 31 alleging that the government is in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a labor law that establishes regulations like minimum wage and overtime, by requiring "essential" federal employees to work for free during the shutdown, even calling it "inhumane." The lawsuit is not only on behalf of TSA agents, but all "essential" employees which include agencies like The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) who safeguard penitentiaries. As of Thursday, Jan. 10 there is no update on the status of the lawsuit or response from the White House. Elite Daily reached out to both the White House and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), as well as the TSA, for comment on the suit, but did not immediately hear back.

In the meantime? Until there is more news or the government shutdown finally comes to a close, things are still up in the air (pun intended). If you want to be as well is up to you.