Long airport waits among the mounting problems as government shutdown drags on

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By Dareh Gregorian, Vaughn Hillyard and Maura Barrett

Long security lines plagued travelers at several airports across the country Monday as the partial government shutdown, which has left over 800,000 workers without pay, dragged on into a 24th day.

Travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had to wait for more than an hour for passengers to get through domestic checkpoints on Monday, the first business day after security screeners missed paychecks for the first time during the shutdown.

“It’s chaos out here,” passenger Vincent Smith said as he stood in a line that snaked through the Atlanta airport’s atrium and baggage claim areas. “This line, I’ve been here about 15 minutes and it has moved 2 feet.”

The long lines come as President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress remain in a stalemate in negotiations over funding for Trump’s proposed border wall — the dispute that led to the partial government shutdown last month. Some analysts say they believe the growing problems at the nation’s airports could increase the sense of urgency to find a solution because of the potential toll that airport delays could have on the U.S. economy.

The long waits at all three checkpoints in the domestic terminal of the world’s busiest airport were reported on its website. An airport spokesperson acknowledged the situation Monday morning but said the lines were still moving.

“Lines are long this morning, but they usually are on Mondays,” said Elise Durham, the airport’s communications director. “We are down a few security lines, but things are moving pretty efficiently.”

Passengers described the situation differently on social media, saying they’d been waiting on security lines for two or even three hours.

“After standing in line to get through TSA for 3 & 1/2 hours by the grace of God, I made my flight home!” bomb_and_beautiful wrote on Instagram.

Others reportedly weren’t so lucky.

“We’ve never seen lines so long and now we’re inline with people who’ve missed their flights,” twigshomeandlighting wrote in an Instagram post, including video of the winding crowds.

Durham referred reporters to the Transportation Security Administration for further information, but the agency’s media line had a recorded message saying employees were unable to answer phone calls because of the lapse in federal funding.

Other airports suffered similar problems. TSA officials closed some security checkpoints at Washington Dulles International Airport after more employees than usual failed to show up for work, NBC’s Washington affiliate reported. TSA officials took to Twitter to say the no-shows were because of heavy snow in the area — not the shutdown.

A terminal at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport also remained closed Monday for a second day amid a shortage of security workers who have gone unpaid during the partial government shutdown, officials said.

The TSA issued a statement acknowledging that a number of personnel didn’t show up for work on Monday.

“This morning, TSA experienced a national rate of 7.6 percent unscheduled absences compared to a 3.2 percent rate one year ago, Monday, January 14, 2018,” the statement said, adding that “security standards remain uncompromised at our nation’s airports.”

The statement did not mention airport wait times, as previous TSA statements during the shutdown have done.

Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at the accounting firm RSM US, told NBC News that increased airport woes might force both sides to find a way to end the shutdown because of the potential affects on businesses.

“If you see the shutdown impact business travel, it will have an outsize impact” because members of Congress will “hear from their contributor base in addition to their constituents,” Brusuelas said. “You could have Republicans begin to talk openly about a solution that does not include the president.”

The shutdown is being felt in different ways across the country. In Kanawha, Iowa, farmers who’ve been feeling the brunt of the administration’s trade war with China now can’t get highly anticipated crop reports because the Department of Agriculture has run out of funding. The reports help farmers decide what to plant.

“It seems like every day we wake up there’s a new crisis. If it’s not with the tariff situation, it’s with not seeing a report,” said Doug Thompson, who farms 2000 acres of corn and soybeans with his two sons. “There’s a lot of business decisions that just need a little more clarity.”

Another Kanawha farmer, Brent Renner, said, “My message to Washington is to quit the bickering. Sit down and understand that people across the nation are affected by this.”

Jan. 14, 201907:28

There was still no end in sight to the shutdown, which is the longest in the country’s history. Trump on Monday rejected a Republican senator’s proposal to end the impasse.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a top Trump ally, proposed a short-term fix over the weekend, urging Trump to reopen the government for a few weeks so that Republicans could negotiate with Democrats over border security and funding for Trump’s proposed wall. If no deal were reached at the end of that time frame, Graham said on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump could then use his national emergency powers to build the wall.

Trump nixed the idea. “I did reject it,” he told reporters at the White House, adding, “I’m not looking to call” a national emergency.

President Donald Trump speaks to the media outside of the White House on Jan. 14, 2019.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Earlier in the morning, Trump blamed the stalled negotiations on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Nancy and Cryin’ Chuck can end the Shutdown in 15 minutes,” he tweeted. “At this point it has become their, and the Democrats, fault!”

At a Dec. 11 meeting with the Democratic leaders, Trump said he would be “proud” to shut down the government over funding for his proposed border wall. “I will be the one to shut it down. I won’t blame you for it,” he said at the time.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., urged the president to open the government soon.

“Not only will continuing the shutdown increase airport delays and hinder commerce, it could have a negative impact on aviation security if a resolution does not come quickly,” Thompson said in a statement.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed that 56 percent of American voters blamed Trump and congressional Republicans for the shutdown, while 36 percent blame Democrats. Trump’s $5.7 billion wall remains unpopular with the public, with 55 percent against it and 43 percent in favor.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of federal workers and a large number of contractors are going without pay, and more than 1,000 contracts for government-funded properties for low-income renters have expired.

Jan. 14, 201903:47

The loss of the Housing and Urban Development money has already hit the San Jose Manor II Apartments in Jacksonville, Florida, hard.

Alma Ballard, who oversees the building for low-income senior citizens, has had to dip into emergency funds to keep the nearly 50-unit property going. She said she’s tried to keep residents relaxed.

“They’re at a point in their life they don’t need to worry about if they have a home,” she said.

Some government workers are getting by thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Air traffic controllers working without pay at Boston’s Logan International Airport tweeted out pictures of pizzas they were sent from their Canadian counterparts.

Canadian colleagues sent Boston Air Traffic Controllers pizza during the government shutdown on Jan. 11, 2019.Mark Sheehy

In Alameda, California, local businesses held afood drive over the weekend to help Coast Guard employees and other furloughed government workers get by.

Chef José Andrés tweeted that he’ll be opening a kitchen on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to feed federal employees during the shutdown. “It’s only fair to feed Americans in need!” he said.

Associated Press contributed.

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