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Concerns grow about impact of shutdown on airport safety; Duckworth warns of long lines to come

The security lines at O’Hare International Airport have been normal in recent days, airport officials say, despite reports that Transportation Security Administration workers have been calling in sick in greater numbers because of the government shutdown.

However, U.S. pilots have expressed concerns about the ongoing impact of the shutdown on airport safety, and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, told reporters at O’Hare on Monday that she envisioned “long, long lines” if the shutdown continues.

“At a time when the nation’s security is at stake, we’re actually losing the number of TSA agents that are on the job and that is deeply concerning to me,” Duckworth said.

On Friday, TSA officials said they were monitoring reports that the nation’s airports were experiencing an increase in “sick-outs,” as the partial federal government shutdown entered its third week, according to the Washington Post. The TSA said the sick calls so far were having minimal impact, though lines have since been reported at LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

Nationwide, 99.8 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes in airport security lines on Sunday, an historically busy day due to holiday travel, while 90.1 percent waited less than 15 minutes, according to a TSA spokesman.

“We are grateful to the more than 51,000 agents across the country who remain focused on the mission and are respectful to the traveling public as they continue the important work necessary to secure the nation’s transportation systems,” said TSA spokesman Michael Bilello.

Chicago aviation department spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said wait times at the city’s airports were less than 15 minutes on Monday and over the weekend, which is normal.

Duckworth predicted lines will get longer if the shutdown continues, since some TSA workers could look for other work to pay bills.

“I envision there will long, long lines as the TSA is shortstaffed,” said Duckworth. “That will affect passengers, that will affect air travel, that will affect businesses and will cause us to lose tremendous amounts of money both for the airport and the city of Chicago.”

President Donald Trump has threatened to keep the government shut down until he gets $5.7 billion to build a border wall with Mexico.

Matt Muchowski, a spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, said TSA workers’ most recent paycheck covers the pay period that ended Dec. 22.

Goverment funding expired Dec. 21, so those paychecks could be short a day’s pay, depending on whether there was residual funding available to make up the difference, Muchowski said.

“We’re hearing a lot of concern,” he said. “People are worried. “People are thinking about what they are going to do.”

The union has sent information to workers about how to apply for unemployment and shared information on other resources, Muchowski said.

Last week, Air Line Pilots Association International, which represents 61,000 pilots, urged Trump to take the “necessary steps to immediately end the shutdown of government agencies that is adversely affecting the safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace system.”

The association said there are fewer FAA safety inspectors than are needed to ensure air traffic control is running at peak performance.

Ryan Storm, 27, of Schaumburg, who had just gotten off a flight from New York at O’Hare on Monday, said he hopes the shutdown will be resolved soon, and that both Democrats and Republicans should help.

“I hope they get this settled so these people [the TSA] will be taken care of,” Storm said.

A rally is planned at Chicago’s federal plaza on Thursday, calling for an end to the shutdown, Muchowski said.

mwisniewski@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @marywizchicago

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