As travel disruptions and delays continue to plague the summer season, there is now the possibility of a government shutdown that could further frustrate travelers. Air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff would be required to work without pay, potentially leading to significant problems if employees call in sick, as was the case during the previous shutdown.
The White House recently issued a warning, outlining the potential impacts of a shutdown, particularly for travelers. It emphasized that air traffic controllers and TSA officers working without pay could result in significant delays and longer wait times at airports across the country, similar to what occurred during past shutdowns.
The previous shutdown, which lasted a record-breaking 35 days from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019, initially had limited effects on the travel sector. However, as the shutdown extended into January and workers faced the prospect of missing a second paycheck, the situation quickly deteriorated.
On January 20, 2019, the final Sunday of the shutdown, the TSA experienced an unscheduled absence rate reaching a peak of 10%, significantly higher than the 3.1% from the same day the previous year. Many employees cited financial constraints as the reason for their absence. These absences led to longer lines at airport security checkpoints, and some airports, including Miami International, had to close terminals due to staff shortages.
As the shutdown neared its end, airports descended into chaos. LaGuardia Airport in New York was particularly affected, with a ground stop implemented as more employees called in sick. The absence of 10 air traffic controllers on January 25 amplified the delays, putting additional pressure on Congress to reach a compromise, which it ultimately did on that very day.
While Congress has until October 1 to agree on a government budget and avoid a shutdown, current indications are not favorable. If a shutdown occurs, air traffic controllers and TSA staff would receive retroactive pay, but it remains uncertain how long they would be willing to work without compensation this time around.
Stay informed as developments unfold and prepare for potential travel disruptions in the coming months.
Flight Delays and Consequences of a Potential Government Shutdown
Despite the absences during the record 35-day shutdown, flight delays for U.S. airlines were not abnormally high. According to data from flight tracker FlightAware, 16.3% of flights were delayed during the shutdown, while the following year saw 14.7% of flights delayed. Between December 23, 2022, and January 25, 2023, the delay percentage increased to 26%.
A notable factor to consider is that the previous shutdown occurred during the bustling holiday travel season. Although airports are typically less busy in early October, the number of passengers passing through checkpoints has exceeded 2019 levels for much of September.
In addition to visible effects, a lengthy shutdown can have less obvious consequences as well. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasized that air traffic controller training would be halted during a shutdown, exacerbating the existing shortage.
“We currently have 2,600 air traffic controllers in training. A government shutdown would disrupt this crucial training, and even a few weeks of closure could set us back by months or more due to its complexity,” Buttigieg explained during a hearing in front of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The U.S. Travel Association estimated that a potential shutdown would have a significant cost to the U.S. travel economy, amounting to $140 million per day. This surpasses the estimated daily impact of $100 million during the 2018/2019 shutdown.
Apart from financial implications, a shutdown would negatively impact the U.S. air travel system, leading to more flight delays, longer screening lines, and setbacks to modernization plans. Moreover, travelers would face longer wait times for visa interviews and passport processing, resulting in further constraints on travel growth and spending.