Unless you’re totally out of touch with reality (the news and social media), you’re fully aware the government’s been shut down since Dec. 22, 2018. It’s the longest stint in U.S. history, according to CNN. Out of the 800,000 government employees who are expected to punch in and not receive a paycheck, an estimated 51,000 are TSA agents, Forbes reports—which means many of them are calling in “sick.”
In fact, the TSA issued a statement this week noting they’re experiencing more than double the normal number of call outs, at a national rate of 6.8 percent compared to 2.5 percent at this time last year. You can’t exactly blame them—we don’t work for free; they shouldn’t be expected to either.
Airports are privately owned, though, which is why they can continue to operate. So when regularly scheduled flights are coupled with a drastically reduced TSA staff, it results in travelers having to face longer, more unpredictable security lines. Airports are even shutting down some TSA checkpoints and terminals altogether. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport shut down six checkpoints on Monday, for example, while Houston’s has had their B terminal (which hosts flights for United Airlines) closed since Sunday.
What does this mean for you, the weary traveler having to deal with it all? Come prepared. Here are the steps you can take to make your upcoming flight with as few headaches as possible.
Get to the Airport Early
This may sound like common sense, but it’s worth noting because, well, how many times have you waited to pack until the last minute and shown up to the airport less than an hour before your scheduled departure time? We’re telling you now: That strategy won’t fly. While TSA says national average wait times are within the normal range of 30 minutes for standard lanes and 10 for TSA PreCheck, delays vary by airport. (On Monday morning, Atlanta had a maximum wait time of 88 minutes at standard checkpoints, and 55 minutes at PreCheck.) The TSA recommends arriving a whopping three hours before your international flight, two if it’s domestic, as a precautionary measure. So if you don’t mind waiting around the terminal (bring a book to pass the time; these are our favorite reads of 2018), this is one of your safest bets.
Download App In the Air
While some airports, like LaGuardia in New York City, post their wait times online, the information isn’t always updated quickly and what you see may not be entirely accurate. Which is why this free app may just be your new best friend. It tracks real-time updates on the security line wait times throughout any airport, based on crowdsourced user feedback. (So think of it like Waze for TSA lines.) It also tracks wait times for check-in lines, includes boarding and landing times, and issues updates on flight delays. There’s a premium option for $29/year that unlocks additional features, like automatic check-ins and family notifications, but you can get all the pertinent wait-time info without spending a dime.
Streamline Your Security Experience
Once you’re at the airport, make life easier and have quick access to the things you need to put in those security bins: your laptop, tablet, and liquids, namely. Wear shoes you can easily slip on and off, and if you’ve got layers, be prepared to whip ‘em off quickly. Pro tip: Leave scarves, hats, and mittens in your bag—you can survive the walk from the car to the airport without ‘em.
Get Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or Clear
If you haven’t ponied up for one of these programs, now’s the time. Global Entry is for those who travel internationally often, as it gets you expedited entry back into the U.S., and the $100 cost includes TSA PreCheck, a government program that allows travelers to go through expedited security lines. (You can also get PreCheck on its own for $85 if you don’t travel abroad often.) There’s also Clear, a private security service that gets you to the front of PreCheck or standard screening.
There’s just one catch: Because Global Entry is operated by Customs and Border Protection, the offices have been closed thanks to the government hiatus. You can still apply now to save you the next time the government shuts its doors, but if you want to make life easier right now, then PreCheck may give you better luck, as it’s processed by private contractors and funded by user fees.