Air Travel Delays Will Follow Government Shutdown, Warns White House

The U.S. Travel Association estimates a $140 million per day loss for the travel economy from the shutdown.
Air Travel Delays Will Follow Government Shutdown, Warns White House
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg testifies before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Washington on Sept. 20, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Naveen Athrappully

The White House has warned of “significant delays” in air travel if a government shutdown were to happen, as transportation employees would have to work without pay.

If Congress doesn't come to an agreement to fund the federal government by Sept. 30, it could cause the government to shut down.

“During an Extreme Republican Shutdown, more than 13,000 air traffic controllers and 50,000 Transportation Security Officers—in addition to thousands of other Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel—would have to show up to do their critical jobs without getting paid until funding becomes available,” the White House said in a Sept. 27 statement.

“In previous shutdowns, this led to significant delays and longer wait times for travelers at airports across the country. Additionally, an Extreme Republican Shutdown would halt air traffic controller training—potentially leading to long-term disruptions to the industry at a moment when we’ve seen critical progress filling a backlog of controllers.”

A federal government shutdown would cost the U.S. travel economy as much as $140 million per day, according to a U.S. Travel Association statement. During a shutdown, the air travel system will be hampered by flight delays and longer screening lines, it stated.

Government-related travel issues such as lengthy visitor visa interview wait times and delays in passport and Global Entry processing would further limit travel growth and spending, the association stated.

The association cited a survey showing that 6 in 10 Americans would cancel or avoid trips by air in the event of a government shutdown. About 8 in 10 respondents agreed that such shutdowns cause inconvenience to air travelers and hurt the economy.

The shutdown can also negatively impact businesses depending on air travelers. For instance, the government shutdown in 2019 disrupted the country’s tourism industry, with the National Park Service estimating a loss (pdf) of $500 million in visitor spending nationwide.

During the shutdown in 2018 and 2019, many parks remained open only because of state funding. However, services such as restrooms and trash collection were unavailable at the locations.

The $140 million per day loss is “an unacceptable prospect that Congress must avoid before the clock runs out and the damages mount,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman said.

“The federal government is already failing the traveler—a shutdown would be further proof of Washington’s inability to find reasonable solutions to problems that affect Americans nationwide,” he said.

In an interview with CBS, Scott Keyes, founder of travel website, recommended that travelers come up with alternate plans next week ahead of the looming shutdown and advised that they reconsider national park visits.
“For most travelers hoping to visit a national park next week, I would start making other plans. I would not count on that trip happening; it's time to start looking into Plan B,” he said.

Staffing Challenges, Modernization Disruption

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned during a Sept. 25 interview with CNN that a government shutdown would present significant staffing challenges.
 An American Airlines plane pushes back from the gate at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport Terminal C. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
An American Airlines plane pushes back from the gate at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport Terminal C. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

“A shutdown would include, just in the transportation side alone, shutting down air traffic control training at the exact moment when the country recognizes the need for more, not less [air traffic control] staffing,” he said.

“The air traffic controllers who would be working in the towers, they wouldn't get paid. They're under enough stress as it is doing that job without having to coming to work with the added stress of not receiving a paycheck.”

Mr. Buttigieg pointed out that there was an outage of a critical IT system in January that the FAA has been working to modernize.

“A shutdown would slow down our progress in modernizing technology at the exact moment when we need to do it,” he said.

In January, all U.S. flight departures were halted briefly by the FAA after the failure of a system used to alert pilots about safety hazards. The FAA placed the blame on a contractor, which it said had accidentally deleted some files while synchronizing the alert system and its backup.

Shutdown Weighs on Transportation Employees

In his CBS interview, Mr. Keyes said that while the government shutdown won’t have a “huge impact” immediately, this would change if the shutdown persists for weeks or months.

“You’ll see quite a few TSA officers and FAA employees suffering from low morale and getting behind on bills. There will be an increasing number of absences, longer security lines, flight delays, and cancellations,” he said.

“It's a delay, not a denial when it comes to paychecks. But for a lot of folks, you can't pass along that IOU to the grocery store or landlord, so it can have a large impact for people's pocketbooks.”

During the 2018–19 shutdown, there was an uptick in unscheduled air traffic controller absences, leading to travel disruptions at multiple airports across the country.

Key air corridors such as New York are “already stretched thin” in terms of air traffic workforce, Mr. Keyes said, and a shutdown would “exacerbate” the situation.

In addition to the end of federal funding, the authorization of the FAA is also set to expire on Sept. 30. Congress is yet to pass a full reauthorization bill for the agency.

The U.S. Travel Association called on Congress to pass a short-term extension for the FAA, warning that inaction on renewing the FAA bill would “further compound challenges for travelers.”

The U.S. Senate is on track to approve a short-term funding bill. However, it isn’t clear whether the bill will be cleared before the Sept. 30 deadline. It's also unclear whether the House would put the bill up for a vote in the chamber.