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How the shutdown is affecting the safety of air travel

The government shutdown has affected air travel by forcing airport security and air traffic controllers to work without pay and eliminating some routine safety inspections. TSA workers earn relatively low pay, so they are more likely than other federal employees to be under financial strain with no income. Amna Nawaz asks Alan Levin of Bloomberg what impact the situation has on aviation safety.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been saying, today marks the first missed paycheck for hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

    What this all means for air travel, especially TSA workers and screeners, has been the subject of many questions and some anxiety.

    Amna Nawaz is here to help unpack what we know.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The decision to close one of the terminals at Miami's International Airport this weekend only adds to the anxiety. In Miami's case, security screeners have been calling in sick at twice the normal rate. Officials say there may not be enough personnel to handle all of the checkpoints otherwise.

    Air traffic controllers nationwide also made their anger clear by suing the Trump administration for being forced to work without pay. But wait times at most airports do not seem to be up substantially, and the TSA itself says there's only been a tiny percentage of the overall force calling in sick.

    Alan Levin of Bloomberg covers the air travel business, and joins me now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Alan Levin:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, so far, we're hearing about wait times being minimally impacted. Only Miami seems to be the major hub that had to make a big decision about this weekend.

    What's been the overall impact of these TSA workers calling out sick?

  • Alan Levin:

    Frankly, the overall impact has been a huge spotlight in the news media.

    TSA workers are probably the number one federal employee that you're likely to come in contact with. And so their slowly increasing sick-in calls and some anecdotal evidence of increased wait times has really garnered a lot of attention. But the industry, quite frankly, is getting really worried that this could spiral very quickly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As you mentioned, it's been anecdotal. We have been hearing stories and collecting them from here and there.

    Our colleague Lisa Desjardins has been speaking to people who are worried and are making the decision about whether to go in to work without pay, but, overall, it doesn't seem to have an impact so far, right?

  • Alan Levin:

    That's correct.

    In Miami, there is some impact. If you had a flight scheduled at, I believe, it's concourse G tomorrow afternoon or for the next few days, you will have to go through another screening portal. Your plane may be moved to another gate. There might be confusion, but not a huge impact.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, back me up a little bit, because it's not just the TSA workers. We're also talking about air traffic controllers here, air safety inspections.

    Overall, when we're talking about airport operations and safety, has there been an impact from the shutdown?

  • Alan Levin:

    It's hard to put your finger on there being a real concrete impact in terms of decreased safety and that sort of thing.

    The system functions very well, as we know from the low accident rate. And so it can go for a few weeks with little or no problem. But the reason the system is so safe is because there are these controls in place. It's because they're doing random inspections on airport ramps and that sort of thing. And those have pretty much stopped.

    And so, over time, there's no question that that margin of safety is going to gradually decrease.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So it sounds like you're saying, like we have heard from a lot of people, the longer this goes on, the greater the chances of there being safety impacted?

  • Alan Levin:

    That's correct.

    More immediately, what we're seeing is that they can't do these routine inspections that keep the system functioning. So airlines can't add a new aircraft to their fleets without an FAA approval.

    I talked to somebody yesterday who has a — this company has a couple of aircraft getting painted in Canada. The painting is done, but they can't bring them back into the country because there's nobody to sign off, and that sort of thing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alan, help me put a finer point on this to help us understand what some of these workers are weighing right now, because TSA workers, though they work on the front lines of this security part of the — of airport operations, they also have some of the lowest starting pay rates.

    The agency overall has some of the lowest employee morale. That's not even during a shutdown decision. What are they going through right now? What kind of pressures are they facing, especially now that they have officially missed their first paycheck?

  • Alan Levin:

    They also have historically very high turnover rates. And so I think it's reasonable to expect that, the longer this goes on, you might see even more turnover.

    We have heard reports from the union that some of these people might be tempted to quit and get other jobs, so they can get pay. We haven't seen evidence of widespread cases of people quitting. And, in fact, it's a little counterproductive. They're — both the House and Senate have passed measures to give them back pay. So, if they hang in there, they will get their money.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pressure is building. And we will see what happens the longer it goes on.

    Alan Levin from Bloomberg, thank you very much.

  • Alan Levin:

    Thank you.

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