Atlanta’s airport braces for Super Bowl crush amid federal shutdown

For more than two years, the world's busiest airport has been preparing to play host to the world's biggest football game.

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It will be a test like no other for Hartsfield-Jackson, with more than 100,000 passengersexpected to pass through security in a single day. Officials thought they'd planned for most anything.

Turns out they were wrong. With just 11 days to go until the Super Bowl kicks off at Mercedes Benz Stadium, there is still no end in sight for a partial federal government shutdown that has left tens of thousands of airport screeners working without pay. Officials worry the ongoing impasse could leave the airport at risk of a debacle just when the national spotlight is shining on Atlanta.

"We are paying a lot of attention to the political situation that we have no control over," Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport general manager John Selden said during a talk to an industry group last week. "It is very scary to us."

Credit: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Credit: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

A Breaking Point?

The Atlanta airport had two-hour long security waits one day last week after Transportation Security Administration officers missed their first paycheck. Lines abated after the TSA brought more officers from other locations into Atlanta.

"This is a pretty resilient staff," said Mary Leftridge Byrd, TSA's federal security director in Atlanta, who has been meeting with the NFL, Super Bowl host committee, the city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Police Department, the FBI and others to prepare.

But if the federal shutdown continues through the Super Bowl, TSA officers, Customs officers and air traffic controllers will have missed two paychecks — an entire month's worth of pay. TSA acknowledges that "many employees are reporting that they are not able to work due to financial limitations."

"There's no gauge as to where someone's breaking point's at. So is it one paycheck? Is it two paychecks? Is it four paychecks?" said National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative Dan McCabe on CNN on Monday. "My biggest fear is that as people reach their breaking point, they'll begin to quit," exacerbating staffing problems.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson raised the prospect on CNN that "as this starts to crumble and unravel, we're going to see mass flight cancellations, we're going to see a system that completely unravels and falls apart. We will not have private jets taking off to get people to the Super Bowl. No one will be able to get to Atlanta. This is going to have a massive economic impact."

And even if the shutdown ends before the game, some are worried about the effects of attrition in the TSA and FAA workforce on lines — and on aviation security.

More Flights; More People

Delta, Southwest and JetBlue have all added flights to Atlanta for the game. As people stream into Atlanta next week, airport roads could become congested with lines of cars and long waits for Uber, Lyft and other rides.

That will be a build-up to the unprecedented 110,000-115,000 passengers expected at security checkpoints at Hartsfield-Jackson on the Monday after the Super Bowl — being dubbed Mass Exodus Monday.

To handle the onslaught, officials are taking a number of unusual steps to scale up the airport’s capacity to far exceed the previous record of 93,082 departing passengers in a single day.

TSA is bringing 120 officers into Atlanta to handle the volume, according to Selden. The agency said it will “operate checkpoints to their fullest operational capacity while maintaining security standards.”

The airport will also restructure the use of a checkpoint at the international terminal.

For passengers of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines — which uniquely has check-in counters at both domestic and international terminals — a checkpoint normally used to re-check incoming international passengers connecting to domestic flights after going through Customs will be repurposed as a regular security checkpoint.

That will add a fifth checkpoint to process departing passengers from Hartsfield-Jackson.

Another factor airport officials are preparing for is the expectation that thousands of travelers will head straight to the airport after the game and spend the night in the terminal until their flights the next day.

Delta is preparing with plans to hand out blankets and amenity kits to passengers who bed down in the airport. Passengers will be able to pass through security up to 24 hours before their flights, meaning some can spend the night on the concourses in gate areas or in the underground tunnels between concourses.

Hartsfield-Jackson is advising travelers flying out Monday allow five hours to check out of hotels, get to the airport, check bags and go through security.

That day, checkpoints will be open 24 hours and there will be eateries and newsstands open round-the-clock on every concourse, the airport says.

The push to come up with other contingency plans has become more urgent as the federal shutdown persists.

One of the risks is if a large share of TSA workers calls in sick or doesn't report to work. It's a concern U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., raised on the Senate floor last week.

“What if the largest airport in the world, that’s going to bring people to the largest football game in the world, goes out of business because the TSA strikes?” Isakson said.

If TSA must close a checkpoint as part of a contingency plan, the agency said it “will manage available officers, canines and other assets with total systemic security in mind.”

Other risks are the possibility of a massive backup of passengers overflowing from the terminal. Officials have also long worried about the security risk of having a huge volume of people who have not gone through security gathered in one public place.

"I think the exodus could possibly be a very difficult day," Selden said.

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