A government shutdown looms as Congress remains in gridlock over extending funding past a major deadline.
If a government shutdown does occur on Saturday, most federal agencies would stop work, and most government workers would be furloughed, save for those who work in agencies deemed as “essential services,” such as Social Security and Medicare.
Also considered essential: most of the federal workers involved with air travel.
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How would the government shutdown affect air travel?
The good news is that air travelers would not see much of an impact, at least at first.
Agencies like the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration are considered essential services. So, airport security workers and air traffic controllers will still be required to work even though they will not receive paychecks until the shutdown eventually ends.
However, absenteeism could present a significant challenge for these two agencies, and the FAA has already been struggling with labor shortages during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Reuters.
About a month into a government shutdown in 2019, some air traffic controllers called in sick or fatigued. This led to a temporary shutdown at LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and delays at airports in Philadelphia, Newark and Atlanta. That ultimately helped end the shutdown, with long airport lines providing bad optics and consumers pressuring legislators to get a deal done.
Another thorn for the FAA during a government shutdown: It would have to pause training new air traffic controllers, something Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said would come at “exactly the wrong moment.”
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“We cannot afford that kind of politically driven disruption at the very moment when we finally have those air traffic control report numbers headed in the right direction,” Buttigieg said at a House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on Sept. 20.
The FAA has grappled with a shortage of air traffic controllers since the pandemic began, leading to flight cuts at major airports.
Buttigieg said at the House hearing that the FAA had surpassed its goal of hiring 1,500 air traffic controllers this year, but a government shutdown would hamper any progress to train them.
Will TSA wait times be longer during the shutdown?
Maybe, although probably not right away.
TSA employees would be required to remain on the job since they’re considered essential. However, they would not receive paychecks until the government reopens (at which point they’ll receive back pay). That means that absenteeism is possible, as with other employees, and workers are less likely to volunteer for overtime shifts.
During the 2018-2019 shutdown, many officers called out sick in the latter part, which led to longer lines at some airports. At the height of the shutdown, 10% of TSA officers nationwide called in sick.
Although longer lines are unlikely at first, it would still be smart to get to the airport a bit earlier than usual while the shutdown continues.
Would national parks stay open during a government shutdown?
During past government shutdowns, national parks have remained open to visitors. However, as most workers were furloughed, national parks became filled with litter and experienced overflowing toilets. Visitors even vandalized some of the property.
This time around, the Department of the Interior said Friday most national parks would remain closed during the government shutdown. It said it encourages visitors to avoid national parks while the government remains shuttered.
However, there is a possibility that some states may pay from their budgets to keep their parks open. Arizona and Utah, for instance, confirmed that they would keep their national parks open during the shutdown, according to the Associated Press.
What about museums like the Smithsonian?
The Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo will remain open for at least a week after the government shuts down, relying on unused prior-year funds to operate, the Smithsonian Institute said on Friday.
The institute added that it would reassess the situation after Oct. 7.
This decision is similar to what happened during the shutdown that began on Dec. 21, 2018, according to the Washington Post. The museum ran out of money and shuttered on Jan. 1, reopening along with the government at the end of the month.
Would Amtrak trains be affected by a government shutdown?
Amtrak trains are expected to keep running as usual during the shutdown.
Amtrak receives some funding from the federal government and from states where it operates, and it’s a federally chartered corporation that is indirectly managed by the government. However, it operates as a private for-profit business, rather than a public authority.
In essence, it’s a for-profit corporation, but the federal government is the majority stockholder.
Trains will continue to operate as usual, and employees will continue to be paid, as was the case in past shutdowns. However, the longer the shutdown drags on, the more likely it is that some of Amtrak’s subsidies could be delayed, which could eventually have an impact.
Can I renew my passport during the shutdown?
According to the Department of State, passport processing is essential and will continue during the shutdown.
However, some passport offices could close if they’re in buildings run by a different shuttered agency; operations could cease altogether if the State Department runs out of unused money carried over from past years.
State Department employees would be working without paychecks, and absenteeism is always possible. That means that should a prolonged shutdown occur, it could lead to an overall slowdown in passport processing times. So, if your passport is set to expire in the coming months, you may want to send in your renewal as soon as possible.
The good news is that post offices will remain open since the postal service does not rely on federal funds, so it will be possible to mail applications and complete them in person.
Will the shutdown impact cruises?
For the most part, cruises won’t be affected at all by the shutdown.
Previous shutdowns have had little noticeable impact, and services like customs and the Coast Guard remain operational even as the government closes.
Can you cross the border during the government shutdown?
Yes. Like at ports and airports, border crossings will remain open during the shutdown. The Border Patrol, along with much of federal law enforcement, is deemed essential.
How would a government shutdown affect the travel industry?
While travel for Americans probably wouldn’t be heavily affected by a government shutdown, the shutdown would still have significant consequences for the travel industry.
The U.S. economy could lose about $140 million a day during a government shutdown, according to the U.S. Travel Association; this is partly from longer wait times at airports and deferred modernization projects. Additionally, processing times for passports, visas and Global Entry could take longer. This could lead visitors to postpone or cancel travel plans.
People might also choose to postpone trips during a shutdown: Market research and consulting firm Ipsos and a U.S. Travel Association poll found that 60% of Americans would avoid or cancel air travel during a government shutdown.
Geoff Freeman, the president of the U.S. Travel Association, said on Thursday that he was expecting a government shutdown to happen since Congress has yet to reach a deal, and the deadline to extend funding is only one day away. Federal agencies have already told their employees to brace for a government shutdown this weekend.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t really a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of what’s going to resolve it,” Freeman said at the Skift Global Forum in New York City on Thursday.
If the government shutdown were to turn into a long-term one, travelers could expect to see even more hiccups.
What does the government shutdown mean for FAA reauthorization?
What may also become another factor in a perfect storm is that the FAA’s authorization is set to expire Saturday; Congress has yet to pass a reauthorization bill. In order to prevent more chaos at the FAA, Congress would need to pass a temporary extension of FAA programs. If Congress fails to do so, the issues that have already hampered the FAA could be exacerbated by a government shutdown and a lack of a reauthorization bill.
A government shutdown would also cause delays for infrastructure projects, meaning that airport construction could see delays as well.
It’s unclear if Congress will be able to reach a last-minute compromise to extend funding for the FAA as a stand-alone bill, an option that has been floated previously.