Looming Government Shutdown May Make Travel More Difficult

Many travelers may postpone their trips due to expected travel disruptions
A long line at the airport

The federal government may be heading toward a shutdown on Oct. 1, 2023. Unless Congress reaches a resolution, funding lapses will begin at 12:01 a.m. that day, which may halt pay for federal employees and disrupt a range of services.

These services include work done by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees, which include air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents. Air traffic controllers keep planes on schedule and passengers safe, while TSA agents scan passengers and their luggage for possible threats, as well as keep lines moving so that consumers can board their aircraft on time.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry advocate organization, a government shutdown could cost the American travel economy as much as $140 million dollars per day.

"Each day that passes will cost the travel economy $140 million, an unacceptable prospect that Congress must avoid before the clock runs out and the damages mount," said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman in a news release. "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."

At the end of the day, all of this means that travelers could see long delays and other travel issues plaguing local airports for departures and arrivals. Here's why a miserable airport experience could be in the cards in the coming months.

How a government shutdown could impact travelers

While Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees may still work during a government shutdown, a White House press release says they would have to do so without pay. Biden administration officials say that more than 13,000 air traffic controllers and 50,000 Transportation Security Officers would have to clock in and do their jobs without payment until Congress took action. That's in addition to other thousands of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel.

Government sources say that during past government shutdowns, fewer federal employees showed up to work, leading to longer wait times for travelers at airports. The airport experience isn't that great already — flight cancellations and delays and long TSA lines are commonplace these days. A government shutdown could make these problems worse.

A September 2023 poll from Ipsos and U.S. Travel shows that many would-be travelers, regardless of political affiliation, might opt to stay home to avoid the impacts on travel from a government shutdown. 60% of all Americans polled agreed they might skip travel until a government shutdown is resolved, including 57% of Republicans, 60% of Independents and 66% of Democrats. Further, 86% of all Americans polled agreed that U.S. government shutdowns "inconvenience air travelers by causing longer lines at airport security checkpoints and increased flight delays and cancellations."

This data helps explain why the American travel economy might see the $140 million daily loss in revenue estimated by the U.S. Travel Association. Fewer travelers flying means a ripple effect on travel revenue for airlines, airports and other related industries.

How long could the impact last?

Federal workers at airports will likely continue showing up to work, since they receive back pay after a shutdown is resolved. However, that doesn't mean they’ll be eager to do their jobs quickly or efficiently. Lower morale could lead to delays at airports, longer TSA security lines and other issues, even if staff is fully present.

The White House also notes that a government shutdown would bring air traffic controller training to a halt — and that could lead to longer-term disruptions to the industry. There’s already a backlog of unfilled air traffic controller positions, and a delay in future controller training could exacerbate this problem.

Passport delays (already a major problem, due to record-high passport applications) could also be amplified by a shutdown. Routine passport processing typically takes 10 to 13 weeks, according to the U.S. Department of State website — however, a spokesperson for the agency suggested in a CNBC interview that travelers should apply as early as six months to avoid a late passport.

A government shutdown could slow passport processing even further and create even more travel mayhem in the process.

Passengers should arrive early at the airport

There's not much consumers can do to avoid travel problems caused by a government shutdown, other than suck it up or stay home. If you have a flight in the coming months and a government shutdown is still in force, it’s probably wise to show up at the airport earlier than normal and pack some extra patience when you do. You should also consider signing up for expedited airport service through programs like CLEAR, Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, and making sure to use these services if you have membership already.

Delays may be inevitable, but having extra time can help you get where you're going.

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