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Navigating the Storm: How a Government Shutdown Could Impact Travel

As the clock ticks towards October 1st, 2023, at 12:01 am, the possibility of a federal government shutdown looms ominously on the horizon, unless Congress can swiftly reach an agreement. While we typically steer clear of politics here at The Exit Row, the potential repercussions for travelers warrant discussion of this potentially impactful topic.

Understanding the Shutdown Game

First things first, what exactly is a government shutdown? It occurs when Congress fails to pass the necessary funding legislation, which then must be signed into law by the President. Ideally, lawmakers are supposed to pass 12 different spending bills to fund various government agencies. However, due to the time-consuming nature of the process, they often resort to temporary extensions known as continuing resolutions (CRs) to keep the government running.

In the absence of funding legislation, federal agencies are forced to cease all non-essential operations, including issuing paychecks. The duration of a shutdown is unpredictable, with the longest in history lasting a grueling 34 days from 2018 to 2019.

Who Keeps the Lights On?

When it comes to travel, some federal employees are deemed essential and must continue working during a shutdown. This includes air traffic controllers, safety inspectors, TSA agents, and CBP officials. Their dedication ensures the essential functions of travel remain intact. These employees don’t receive their paychecks during this time, but a 2019 law guarantees backpay for furloughed federal workers once the funding deadlock is resolved.

Past Shutdowns: Usually a Minor Inconvenience

Historically, government shutdowns have had minimal impacts on travel. In 2019, it took approximately two weeks of no pay for FAA controllers and TSA agents to begin missing work, leading to long security checkpoint lines and flight delays. Eventually, the government reached an agreement, and normalcy was restored. During the same shutdown, some national parks either closed entirely or operated without the necessary staff to maintain them, leading to disarray, with trash piling up and toilets overflowing.

One recurring challenge during a shutdown is the FAA’s inability to train new air traffic controllers. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg emphasized the perilous timing, citing the already existing shortage of ATC controllers. “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 hearing on September 20. Any further disruptions could exacerbate an already precarious situation.

A Gathering Storm

Adding to the potential turbulence is the looming expiration of the FAA’s authorization, with Congress yet to pass a reauthorization bill. To prevent further chaos at the FAA, Congress would need to pass a temporary extension of FAA programs. Failure to do so could amplify the challenges the FAA faces due to a government shutdown and a lack of reauthorization.

Additionally, while some services like passport & visa processing are funded in such a way that these may be processed for a while, it’s likely we’ll see severe delays, progressively getting worse as the shutdown drags on. As for trusted traveler programs like Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, existing members should be able to continue to use their current membership until it expires, but it’s likely we’ll see a halt to processing any new applications or renewals.

Finally, a government shutdown could also impede infrastructure projects, causing potential delays in airport construction and maintenance.

Don’t Be Scared – Be Prepared

Many readers are likely already members of popular trusted traveler programs like Global Entry and TSA PreCheck, which could significantly mitigate the additional wait times you may face at TSA and passport control. While it’s likely too late to become a member of Global Entry before October 1, you may still have time to join TSA PreCheck if you apply ASAP and face no hurdles in getting your application approved (though admittedly, it’s a stretch). Remember, a Global Entry membership includes TSA PreCheck privileges – simply add your PassID to your airline reservations to get the designation on your boarding pass. With PreCheck more important than ever over the coming weeks, I’d advise double checking any upcoming reservations for a trusted traveler ID number to avoid any snags at security.

While government shutdowns have historically had limited immediate impacts on travel, the potential perfect storm brewing on the horizon warrants attention. The intersecting issues of FAA challenges, pending reauthorization, and delays in essential services could create a more turbulent travel environment than we’ve seen in the past. We expect the severity of the impact to be directly tied to how long this lasts. A few days, no big deal; however, if this shutdown drags on, we’d expect more severe impacts. Travelers should stay informed and prepared for possible disruptions, even as we hope for a swift resolution to this looming crisis.