Brief government shutdowns haven’t typically had a big impact on the travel industry. But the longer they go on, the greater the chance for staffing issues and other service disruptions.
A U.S. government shutdown is looking more likely by the day as budget negotiations drag on in Congress. A shutdown would start next month, unless the government can reach a deal by the September 30 deadline.
Not everything stops in a government shutdown, because many employees are deemed “essential” and continue to work. That includes airport security agents, customs officials and air traffic controllers.
But the longer it goes on, the more likely it is that travelers – and the travel industry – could encounter increased hassles.
During the partial, 34-day government shutdown between late 2018 and early 2019 — the longest ever — the travel industry faced issues including garbage overflowing at national parks, long security lines at airports and flight delays.
While it is still unclear how a government shutdown would affect travel this time around, here’s how it may affect various parts of the industry.
Air Traffic Controllers
Air traffic controllers are considered “essential” government workers, so by law they are expected to work during a government shutdown.
But that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be an impact. Though they’ve traditionally been given back pay for their work, air traffic controllers and other “essential” employees don’t receive regular paychecks during the shutdown — an issue that only gets worse the longer it goes on.
In late January 2019, 10 air traffic controllers called off work, CNN reported. The move prompted a ground stop at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and ultimately led to those specialized workers being credited with helping end the shutdown altogether.
Another issue is more long-term. A shutdown would pause training of new air traffic controllers at a time when the FAA is facing a staffing shortage of about 3,000 workers.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently warned the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that a government shutdown would halt hiring and training for air traffic controllers. This would especially affect places like the greater New York City area, which is already seeing a notable shortage of these controllers available to manage its airspace.
Just like air traffic controllers, Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) workers at airport security lines are considered “essential” employees and must continue working during a government shutdown.
Nearly 56,000 of about 59,200 TSA workers employed as of July 2022 would be retained during a government shutdown, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s latest contingency plan.
However, operational issues such as longer security lines at airports could arise if employees do not show up for work — a possibility when workers are not getting regular paychecks.
In early January 2019, CNN reported that hundreds of TSA employees called in sick at four major airports during the second week of that shutdown. About 10 days later, CNBC reported that this surge in TSA screeners calling in sick was prompting longer security lines at airports. The issue affected the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Customs and Border Protection Agents
The majority of Customs and Border Protection agents are considered “essential” workers and would have to continue coming to work in light of a shutdown. Like TSA security officers and air traffic control workers, these employees would forgo their regular paychecks during the shutdown and would continue to work at airports, cruise ports and border crossings.
Passport Processing and Visas
Passport processing generally continues during a government shutdown — pending availability of funds — but there may be some exceptions.
“Consular operations domestically and abroad will remain operational as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations,” the State Department’s contingency plan from March 2022 states. “However, if a passport agency is located in a government building affected by a lapse in appropriations, the facility may become unsupported.”
U.S. embassies and consulates in other countries would remain open during a shutdown, according to that plan. They would continue to process scheduled passport and visa services.
Passport processing times are already much longer than they were before the pandemic, with routine services now taking 10-13 weeks.
Amtrak receives government subsidies but is run as a business through its status as a federally-chartered corporation. Therefore, it ended up being spared during the last shutdown in 2019, Business Insider reported. Amtrak is not expected to be immediately affected by a government shutdown.
National Parks, Monuments and Museums
National parks, monuments and museums may close or scale back services during a government shutdown, depending on how long the funding lapse would last. However, many specifics about which parks would close and when remain unclear.
The National Park Service did not offer further comment when Skift asked about its shutdown contingency plan, which parks would close or which services would be available if the government misses its funding deadline.
The National Parks Conservation Association reported that about a third of U.S. national parks closed completely during the last shutdown. However, several stayed open. Many of those locations filled up with garbage and even human waste while a majority of staff — more than 21,000, according to CNN — were furloughed.
The Smithsonian Institution museums and zoo, which are partially funded by the US government, remained open and staffed for 11 days during the last shutdown using funds from the previous year. But then, employees were furloughed for 27 days.
Some states may find a way to keep their parks open, especially if they help generate large amounts of tourism revenue in the surrounding area. For example, Arizona plans to keep Grand Canyon National Park open during a shutdown using lottery funds, Phoenix’s local 12 News station reported. Utah is also working on a plan to keep its national parks open during a possible shutdown using existing funds, Politico Pro reported.