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Shutdown Survival: How One Airport Made Do With Half the Screeners

Jan. 19, 2019
11 min read
Shutdown Survival: How One Airport Made Do With Half the Screeners
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As American Airlines Flight 5742 out of Phoenix began its descent toward Palm Springs International Airport last week, I looked out my window, expecting to see the textured khaki of the San Jacinto Mountains under the desert sun. Instead, fog shrouded the hills, and rain glazed the windows of the CRJ900. As we landed, on wet tarmac amid an ominous drizzle, it felt like every passenger on the plane was taking stock of the situation.

“It’s not really impressive so far,” said the guy sitting behind me.

Well, yeah. Palm Springs is supposed to be California-bright and Hollywood-perfect, a modernist wonderland of swimming pools and golf courses where nothing gets in your way. Instead, for the next few days, clouds would hang over Palm Springs, dumping rain in spurts, glazing the mountains with sudden green, prompting flash-flood advisories, and giving everyone, tourists and locals alike, something to complain about.

At the same time, another cloud hung over Palm Springs, a metaphorical one that might have longer-lasting impact than a few unusual days of rain: On Jan. 8, CNN had published a major scoop about PSP, the Palm Springs airport — Transportation Security Administration officers, working without pay due to the federal-government shutdown, had been calling in sick in such droves that a deputy federal security director circulated a dire memo warning that such absences “adversely impacted security operations.” It was the story that many observers of the shutdown had been waiting for, potential proof that Washington politics were putting the flying public at serious risk and that the TSA — which everyone loves to hate — was ready to collapse.

That, at least, was the rap on the PSP TSA. What I wanted to find out was how the airport — designated a “small hub” by the FAA, it served 2.3 million passengers in 2018, up from 1.7 million in 2013 — as a whole was coping. (Granted, that's small fry compared to the 85 million people at nearby LAX, but it's still equivalent to the population of a pretty big city.)

So, what was the real extent of the problem? What happens when one part of that complex ecosystem starts failing? How do airports actually operate, in normal times and in times of crisis?

“There is no crisis,” said Thomas Nolan, who for 12 years has been PSP’s executive director.

Fit and clean-cut, Nolan has worked in airports for more than 30 years, including at snowy places like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in the Northeast, and he still marvels boyishly at the efficiency of the system that puts planes up and sets them down with remarkable regularity and safety. I found his office decorated with awards, model planes, a couple of cacti and a gargantuan fuse from a runway power system. He was an airport guy, through and through.

When the CNN story broke, Nolan said, he was taken by surprise.

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“I had a cold call,” he said. “They said, ‘Are you aware of some correspondence?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ‘Well, can you comment on it? What do you know about it?’ I said, ‘I know nothing.’”

A map of the destinations currently served from PSP in Photo by Matt Gross/TPG
A map of the destinations currently served from PSP in Nolan's office. (Photo by Matt Gross/TPG)

That Nolan knew nothing of the “adversely impacted security operations” memo was, in fact, by design. To a casual passenger, an airport may seem like a unified entity, but as Nolan described it, it’s more like an apartment complex, catering to a variety of niche tenants with particular logistical needs, and Nolan is essentially the landlord. Like Hertz and Delta, the TSA has a lease with the airport, but its operations are its own. The airport is there to facilitate those operations.

“They operate in their space,” Nolan said, “but obviously their influence goes beyond their physical space.”

Nolan insisted that the government shutdown had not affected airport operations in the slightest, so I put this to him as a hypothetical: What would happen if he arrived at work to find that only half the day’s contingent of TSA officers had shown up?

“I go through my checklist,” he said. “That area is still functioning, from an equipment standpoint, and the only impediment that the TSA is grappling with is a potential shortage, if that were to occur, which it isn't here.”

The next step, he added, is to ask, “What can we do to help and facilitate?” That might mean reorganizing the flexible barriers that guide passengers through the security checkpoint, stationing airport employees nearby to inform passengers of delays, making more frequent announcements over the PA system, and keeping the airlines themselves up to date.

“By the end of the day, those flights and operations will get out,” he said. “Because under the scenario you've presented, it will still be functioning.”

In fact, this was pretty much what happened on Jan. 7, the incident that triggered the memo. A total of 18 TSA agents were supposed to begin their shifts at 4am, said Keith Jeffries, the federal security director who oversees PSP and four other regional airports. Only eight or nine showed up, he said, with the rest calling in sick.

Faced with this (ahem) crisis, PSP TSA followed protocol.

“They immediately opened up what lanes they could open up and they started screening,” Jeffries said. “The next shift that came in a few hours later was able to offset that, and then we got into a battle rhythm.”

At their worst that morning, wait times at security extended to 29 minutes, he said, “which is unfortunate, but still we were able to overcome that when the next shift came on board.”

Coming from JFK, I thought 29 minutes didn’t seem excessive, but PSP is a small airport, and in three days of observing security lines there, I never saw them grow to more than a dozen people, with maybe a handful waiting in PreCheck. Half an hour was almost unimaginable.

NOVEMBER 25, 2013. PALM SPRINGS, CA. Passengers walk beneath high shade canopies in the Sony Bono Concourse at the Palm Springs International Airport on Nov 25, 2013. Recently completed improvements have doubled the number of gates but managed to keep what one travel magazine calls the most stress free airport in the U.S. (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
The Sonny Bono Concourse at the Palm Springs International Airport in 2013 (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As Nolan led me through the airport, from the publicly visible areas to the narrow corridors where airline managers worked in windowless, secure offices and TSA agents took coffee breaks, everything seemed normal: Screeners checked bags, rampers loaded them onto trucks, and passengers marched through the Sonny Bono Concourse. As he greeted colleagues, picked up stray bits of trash and adjusted a frayed bit of carpeting, Nolan was relentlessly reassuring, with a winning Midwestern earnestness. Still, he was a boss, an official representative of the airport, a guy who worried that my photos of rainy, foggy Palm Springs might be bad for PR. Could I really trust him when he said there was nothing wrong?

Because, of course, there is something very wrong: The shutdown is making the lives of TSA agents miserable. Required to show up for work, but unable to get paid, many are struggling to get by. One agent I spoke with (who asked not to be identified) said co-workers were borrowing money to pay bills, though thankfully a credit union was offering rolling zero-percent-interest loans. Others were planning carpools to visit a food bank two hours away, in Venice.

“You just show your badge and for 30 bucks, you get about $200 worth of food, which is great,” the agent said.

A newly strict policy on calling in sick was, however, creating problems. “If you call off, you have to bring in a doctor’s note,” the agent said. “Don’t call off just because of the shutdown.”

While no one had yet been disciplined for violating this policy, the agent said, it has also meant that many are working while sick, afraid that taking time off will be viewed poorly. That’s not good, for agents or for the passengers they screen. The agent described a co-worker who discovered she had swine flu and was allowed to stay home — a gauge of how serious an illness now has to be to qualify for time off.

At the same time, the agent was resolute about the overall functioning of the airport. The agent, who has been with TSA for more than five years, talked about how PSP’s contingent of about 90 TSA officers underwent constant training and were a model for other airports.

“We have passengers come through, it’s like, ‘God, I wish you’d come to JFK and teach them how to be nice’ or whatever. I’m not worried about Palm Springs. It’s a good team. It’s a good family unit.”

“Family” was a term Nolan had used as well in talking about how each of PSP’s tenants had banded together to help their unpaid federal colleagues. The food-service giants HMS Host and Paradies were going to begin offering TSA and FAA employees 50% off meals at the airport. Airline workers were donating food. And everyone, from Nolan to everyday passengers, was constantly telling TSA officers “thank you.”

“It’s really weird,” said the agent. “We’re TSA, so usually they’re yelling at us for ‘Why do I have to do this?’ And now they’re thanking us — ‘Do whatever you have to do to keep us safe’ — and it’s a very strange change.”

Will that goodwill stick around when the shutdown comes to an end?

“I’m trying to be optimistic, but it might. They’re finally realizing that if we’re not there keeping it safe, then they can’t fly.”

Thomans Nolan at the airport he runs Photo by Matt Gross/TPG)
Thomas Nolan at the airport he runs. (Photo by Matt Gross/TPG)

The end of the shutdown, however, may be a while coming, and in the meantime other challenges loom for PSP. February marks the start of the high season in Palm Springs, and normally the TSA deploys officers from other areas to help out at PSP for a few months. Those agents have to cover their expenses — everything from rental cars to hotel rooms — with government credit cards, which won’t be reimbursed while the shutdown continues. Rumors of a TSA strike continue to swirl, too, though such a strike might be illegal. And there’s a chance that agents may simply start to quit en masse and seek out other work. PSP might be able to handle a 50% no-show day, but 100%?

For Nolan, that remains purely hypothetical — a question that pales in importance next to the real issue he had to deal with last week: the weather. On the morning we met, at least six flights had had to be canceled. Departures were fine, but the confluence of mountains and fog meant inbound aircraft couldn’t easily land — not that there was anything an airport executive director could really do about that. It was the weather, an imposition as implacable as a distant budget dispute. You waited and you hoped for the best. The sun would come out tomorrow. Or maybe the next day.

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Featured image by LA Times via Getty Images