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Why You Should Thank TSA Agents for Working During the Shutdown

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 1/23/2019 Katherine LaGrave
a person with collar shirt: When is a 'thank you' not welcome? © T.M. Detwiler When is a 'thank you' not welcome?

Being a TSA agent is a thankless job: You're tasked with protecting the traveling public, but spend just as much time asking people to please (please) place their electronics and shoes in the bins. For the past month, the job has been even more thankless, as TSA agents have been working without pay due to the government shutdown, which is now in its fifth week.

On Sunday, 10 percent of TSA officers called out of work; on Tuesday, that number was 7.4 percent, compared to 3.2 percent on the same Tuesday a year ago. Some airports including Seattle-Tacoma, Boston Logan, and Newark Liberty are seeing an uptick in security wait times as a result, and the TSA has twice asked for employees to help out at smaller airports with low staffing, reports CNN.

Here at the Traveler office, many of us have flown in recent weeks, and found that the situation at airports—like New York-LaGuardia, Dulles International in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas's McCarran International—wasn't as bad as we expected. (No abnormally long lines at security that we saw.) Something we did find? Travelers thanking TSA agents for working, so much so that it influenced many of us to do the same on our next trip through security.

But as one writer proposed on the aviation blog One Mile at a Time after seeing agents respond negatively to being thanked, perhaps we shouldn't. "If people are constantly thanking them for working without pay, on some level that’s annoying...TSA agents mostly aren’t working because they want to be, but rather because they have to be, and because they can still be disciplined if they don’t show up or take too many sick days," says writer Ben Schlappig.

It got us thinking: How do other people feel about thanking TSA agents for working during the shutdown?

Travel expert Gary Leff, who runs the blog View from the Wing, says there's a reason to give agents a shoutout. "No matter what you think of TSA—I'm been a consistent critic of 'security theater' for years that doesn't seem to contribute a lot to actually keeping the skies safe—going through their checkpoints and following their procedures is a requirement to fly," he says. "As we've seen, during the government shutdown, an increasing number of TSA employees have taken unscheduled leave and that's slowed down the travel process.

"Long waits at TSA checkpoints are a huge economic waste. Taking what the TSA says is their acceptable standard for wait time of 30 minutes across each of the billion passenger trips in the U.S. each year and an average wage of about $28, that's a $14 billion cost to the economy. Making waits worse comes at a real cost. Since each TSA employee has a choice to make each day, whether to come to work, and we're all better off right now if they do, I've been thanking them as I clear the checkpoint. Most importantly, each one has seemed to appreciate the acknowledgment."

Barbara Peterson, Traveler's senior aviation correspondent and a former undercover TSA agent herself, agrees.

"Yes, by all means they [TSA agents] should be thanked," she says. "When I worked at the checkpoint not only did we not get thanked, but we got a lot of abuse—including the time when a female passenger got so mad at us that she threw her shoes at us and hit one of my colleagues in the face. If one good thing comes out of this it could be a recalibration of the screener-passenger relationship, for the better."

We've reached out to the TSA spokesperson for comment but have yet to hear back. What do you think? Tweet at us @CNTraveler.

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