Can TSA vaccinate enough screeners before the Thanksgiving travel rush?

Passengers line up on Memorial Day weekend at Los Angeles International Airport.
Passengers line up outside Terminal 2 at Los Angeles International Airport during the Memorial Day weekend. Crowds are expected to grow again during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A potential shortage of airport screeners triggered by a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate could mean extra-long queues at airport security checkpoints during the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday travel week.

Only about 60% of Transportation Security Administration employees are at least partially vaccinated with about a month to go before the Nov. 22 deadline for federal employees to be fully vaccinated. Federal employees who ignore the mandate face discipline, including being fired, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CNN last week that he is “very hopeful” the agency won’t have a worker shortage but said the TSA is preparing contingency plans in case it can’t be avoided.


The agency expects more TSA employees to be vaccinated in the coming weeks, with the hope that “the vast majority of TSA agents will be vaccinated,” a spokesperson said. The agency was unable to say how the vaccination rate for screeners compared with that of employees overall.

A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second shot in a two-dose series, or two weeks after a single-shot vaccine.

“At TSA, we are hosting employee town halls, sending broadcast emails, and posting details on the requirement in break rooms on how and where to upload documents for proof of vaccination status,” TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein said.

The risk that the TSA may be forced to fire a large segment of its workforce ahead of the holiday weekend prompted Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to urge the TSA to develop a contingency plan and increase vaccination rates before Nov. 22. He urged the agency to make greater use of explosive-sniffing dogs to help move the screening lines faster.

“Late last week the TSA hinted at a potential real travel mess as Thanksgiving approaches,” he said during a news conference Sunday. “And that’s because they reported that 40% of their workforce remain unvaccinated from COVID-19.”

The COVID-19 death of an airline passenger, and pilots’ and flight attendants’ complaints about other incidents, illustrate deficiencies in the systems meant to stop people from bringing the coronavirus on flights.

Jan. 1, 2021

Airlines for America, the trade group that represents most of the country’s airlines, declined to speculate on what effect the vaccine mandate could have on Thanksgiving travel plans, except to say in a statement, “we remain in routine communication with our federal partners to prioritize a safe, seamless travel experience.”


Other government agencies and private businesses are reporting much higher compliance with vaccine mandates.

Several major U.S. air carriers imposed vaccine mandates on their employees months before the Biden administration required all companies that contract with the federal government, including airlines, to impose such mandates.

United Airlines reported that more than 99% of its employees are vaccinated. Delta Air Lines has not imposed a mandate but told employees they face a $200 monthly surcharge if they fail to get vaccinated by Nov. 1. As of last week, 90% of Delta employees were vaccinated.

At the Los Angeles Unified School District, where employees could lose their jobs for defying its vaccine mandate, 99% of classroom teachers and 97% of all employees have complied.

The city of Los Angeles in August adopted a vaccine mandate for all city employees but this week was considering extending its deadline. As of earlier this week, more than 72% of employees reported being either fully or partially vaccinated, according to a city report.

A spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA agents, directed all questions about the vaccination mandate to the TSA. However, the union posted a website update that makes it clear that employees who refuse to get vaccinated are unlikely to win a court challenge against the mandate.

Travel websites and other data suggest that Americans are ready to travel, perhaps in response to an overall decline in COVID-19 cases in many states.

Based on flight searches, the travel website predicted the number of travelers passing through U.S. airports will reach a daily average of 2 million passengers over the holiday weekend, which represents about 80% of 2019 passenger levels but more than double the 2020 levels.

Domestic round-trip airline ticket prices for the Thanksgiving weekend are expected to average $290, down 13% from 2019, with international flights priced at an average of $620, down 17% from 2019. However, Hopper predicts airline prices will begin to surge soon, particularly for international travel after news that the U.S. plans to reopen the country to foreign travelers starting Nov. 8.

In another analysis, the Adobe Digital Economy Index found that Thanksgiving flight bookings were 2.6% higher in the first two weeks of October than in the same period in 2019.

“The uptick indicates that we may be at the beginning of a surge in holiday bookings,” said Adobe analyst Vivek Pandya.