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Government Shutdown Has Minimal Impact on Arkansas Airports

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by Jeremy Peppas

The current partial shutdown of the federal government, barring a declaration of a national emergency, will become the longest in the country’s history on Saturday, Jan. 12, passing the 1995 shutdown led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The impact of this year’s shutdown has mostly been muted in Arkansas. The state has about 3,000 federal employees who are furloughed, according to Governing, a trade publication for cities and states, and that 3,000 is a tiny percentage of the roughly 800,000 federal employees nationally who haven’t been paid while furloughed.

The state’s two largest airports – Bill and Hillary Clinton National in Little Rock and Bentonville’s Northwest Arkansas Regional – have plenty of federal employees in the form of Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration workers, and while they’re clocking in, they aren’t getting paid.

At some airports, that has led to some issues for travelers, as TSA agents have been calling in sick and some plane inspections weren’t happening. Those and other concerns were highlighted in a Jan. 9 letter from 34 aviation trade groups that was sent to the White House and Congressional leaders. The letter implored leadership to re-open the government before the worst happened.

Arkansas, so far, has been spared from even the most minor of calamities.

“There haven’t been any delays at [Clinton National] due to the government shutdown,” says Shane Carter, a spokesman for the airport and its director of public affairs and governmental relations. Yet frequent fliers – and anyone who has waited on the tarmac in Little Rock because of a thunderstorm in Chicago – knows what happens elsewhere has as much impact on travel as what happens locally.

As Kelly Johnson, airport director at Northwest Arkansas Regional, notes, “Other airports with massive screening volumes” would be the ones most impacted by a prolonged shutdown.

“We would like to see this shutdown ended quickly for the safety, security and continuation of commerce,” Johnson says, “and also the convenience of our passengers.”

The letter sent by the aviation industry said, “Some airports are already struggling to keep up with a record number of travelers, and reduced staffing levels will exacerbate problems in the near-term and into the busy spring and summer travel seasons.”

Carter says Clinton National hasn’t had those issues.

“We have not experienced any impact on passenger screening times due to the shutdown,” he says. “In fact, the average processing time at the security checkpoint has decreased from last month. In addition, we have not had any changes to flight schedules.”

Both Arkansas airports are relatively busy for their size.

Johnson says Northwest Regional averaged 35 flights a day, with 2,159 daily boarding passengers in 2018. Carter says Clinton National doesn’t keep daily averages, but Jan. 9 saw a total of 78 flights with “39 arrivals and 39 departures” and “2,140,891 passengers for 2018,” which works out to an average of under 6,000 passengers daily.

Both airports have one security checkpoint. Johnson cited security concerns and declined to identify the number of TSA officials at Northwest Regional, while Carter said “approximately 100 are responsible for passenger screening functions” at Clinton National.

If that number were to drop, though, the aviation groups’ letter highlighted what a decline in TSA agents would mean: “wait times will grow and larger crowds will be forced to congregate in public areas of airports.”

Carter also said Clinton National, “appreciates the dedication of both the FAA and TSA employees who continue to work so that our passengers have safe, on-time flights.”

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