If Congress cannot reach a spending deal by Oct. 1, a resulting government shutdown could significantly impact travel and not in the best way.
The U.S. Travel Association warns a shutdown could come with “dire consequences,” costing the industry an estimated $140 million per day.
Some of the aviation industry’s most essential workers — air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration officers — would be required to work without pay. Past shutdowns have led to more federal employee absences, longer security lines and more flight delays.
“The federal government is already failing the traveler,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a statement. “A shutdown would be further proof of Washington’s inability to find reasonable solutions to problems that affect Americans nationwide.”
How would a government shutdown affect air travel?
Even though thousands of federal workers would be furloughed in the event of a government shutdown, air travel is supposed to continue like normal. Both TSA officers and air traffic controllers would continue working. However, those workers would not get paid during a shutdown.
That shouldn’t lead to delays for travelers immediately. But if the shutdown drags on for weeks, some federal workers may refuse to work without a paycheck.
One day during the nation’s longest-ever shutdown from December 2018 to January 2019, TSA reported that 10% of its officers were missing work for an unscheduled absence.
The saga forced some airports to close security checkpoints and caused long waits for some travelers.
Some air traffic controllers also missed work during the 2019 government shutdown, which led to a temporary halt at New York-LaGuardia airport, as well as major delays at Newark, Philadelphia and Atlanta airports.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) already faces a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers, which airlines blamed for delays and cancellations earlier this year. With more unscheduled absences, flight delays and cancellations could only worsen during a government shutdown.
Long-term consequences for air travel
A government shutdown could also have more long-term ramifications for air travel. For example, training new controllers, which takes up to three years, is crucial to closing that staffing gap and getting air travel fully back on track.
“If there is a government shutdown, that is going to disrupt that process, and the disruption is profound,” Acting FAA Administrator Polly Trottenberg told reporters on Sept. 13. “If we shut down for a couple of weeks, it takes a lot more than a couple weeks to recover.”
However, she emphasized the agency is “not going to compromise on safety” if there is a shutdown.
Would national parks close during a shutdown?
It’s not entirely clear what a shutdown would mean for national parks, which are overseen by the Interior Department. At this point, the National Park Service isn’t commenting on specific contingency plans in the event of a shutdown.
During the 2013 federal government shutdown, all 400-plus national park sites were closed, according to the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. But it was a different story in 2018 and 2019, when some parks remained partially open, albeit not functioning like normal.
“We witnessed unnecessary damage to resources and wildlife because parks were left open without adequate staff,” Angela Gonzales, the organization’s associate director of communications, said in an email, noting overflowing trash cans, human waste, vandalism and looting in parks.
Given the uncertainty, if a shutdown occurs and you’re considering going to a national park, your best bet may be to check your specific park’s website or social media feed. However, they may not be updated regularly with employees furloughed. If you do attempt to visit a park or site, don’t count on access to restrooms or a visitors center.
Can I get a passport during a shutdown?
Passports are handled by the State Department, and the department’s shutdown contingency plans online say consular operations, including passports and visas, “will remain 100% operational as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations.”
However, keep in mind a government shutdown may further delay processing times. Currently, the State Department estimates a routine passport application takes 10 to 13 weeks, but it’s wiser to give yourself six months of lead time before an international trip.
Can I still get Global Entry and TSA PreCheck during a shutdown?
It’s not entirely clear how staffing would impact Global Entry and TSA PreCheck applications during a government shutdown. These applications fall under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security.
Applications for the two programs will remain open, but getting a screening appointment to complete enrollment could be delayed.
During the 2018 to 2019 shutdown, Global Entry appointments at some enrollment centers were canceled with no rescheduled date in sight. Any disruption could be painful for new applicants because TSA is still working through a continued backlog from recent years.
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