Houston Airport Closes TSA Security Checkpoint Amid Federal Shutdown

Houston Airport System spokesman Bill Begley blamed "staffing issues" for the decision Transportation Security Administration made at 3:30 p.m. to close the checkpoint through Monday morning, at the earliest.
by | January 14, 2019 AT 6:50 AM

By Andrea Leinfelder and Nicole Hensley

The ballooning impact of the government shutdown landed at Bush Intercontinental Airport on Sunday with the forced closure of a security checkpoint to Terminal B due to low staffing.

Houston Airport System spokesman Bill Begley blamed "staffing issues" for the decision Transportation Security Administration made at 3:30 p.m. to close the checkpoint through Monday morning, at the earliest.

The lobby to the shuttered checkpoint emptied soon after the closure, with luggage-toting travelers being  funneled through Terminals C and E to reach their Terminal B flights. The wait  time at the remaining checkpoints ranged from an estimated 10 to a sluggish 24  minutes as of 8:30 p.m.

Airport officials pitched a sign along John F. Kennedy Boulevard to warn  approaching travelers of the closure, while police blocked the departure ramp to  Terminal B with their cars.

A TSA spokesperson addressed the closure amid the federal shutdown that has  left cash-strapped government workers without pay checks.

"We are aware of the situation at Houston Bush Airport," the official said in  a text message. "As TSA has stated previously, airports in certain locations  will begin exercising consolidation options during peak periods. These decisions  will be made at the local level."

The official later said "key stakeholders" decided that the checkpoint would  remain closed even as it was scheduled to re-open 4:30 a.m. Monday, the 24th day  of the shutdown. The official did not say when the checkpoint could reopen.

The continuous closure makes it "easier for (TSA workers) to stage their  equipment overnight at Terminal C to begin daily operations, rather than have  everything staged at B for normal operations," the official explained.

The no-show TSA workers are among an estimated 30,000 federal employees in  the Houston area, all of whom have been furloughed or required to work without  pay amid President Trump's demands for $5 billion to build a wall along the  Mexican border. The dispute has blocked the passage of government funding  bills.

In the meantime, federal employees have little choice but to show up to work if they are deemed essential, as TSA agents are.

The TSA recorded a nationwide rate of unscheduled absences at 7.7 percent  Sunday morning, up from 3.2 percent a year ago, the agency said. It screened 1.6  million passengers nationwide on Saturday, with 99.9 percent of those travelers  waiting less than 30 minutes and about 94 percent waiting less than 15  minutes.

Over the weekend, TSA officials at Miami International Airport were first to  close a security checkpoint to Concourse G -- also because of absent workers --  with plans to reopen it Monday.

Mayor Sylvester Turner used the closure to remind travelers to always arrive two hours before flights.

"Shortage of TSA workers, unpaid during the US gov't shutdown, is causing  this change," Turner said.

A ticketing counter at the Terminal B lobby for United Airlines was closed as  well, Begley said.

In a statement, United Airlines said it is working closely with TSA, the  Houston Airport System and other relevant agencies " to ensure our customers get  to their destinations safely."

Erin Douglas and Brett Coomer contributed to this report.

(c)2019 the Houston Chronicle