The partial government shutdown could start having a noticeable impact on air travel if the situation isn’t resolved soon, industry and employee groups are warning.
Among the more than 400,000 federal workers who are working without pay are employees who have a direct involvement in aviation and air travel: TSA screeners, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, and air traffic controllers. A nearly equal number of federal workers are not deemed “essential” and have been placed on temporary leave, and their absence is affecting some functions ranging from FAA inspections of aircraft to CBP interviews with applicants for Global Entry status.
Much of the media attention has focused on potential snarls at airport checkpoints, but the shutdown’s impact on travel could manifest itself in numerous ways. For example, Alaska Airlines has warned that without FAA officials to sign off, the new Paine Field Airport near Seattle may not be able to open as promised on Feb. 11. And Delta Air Lines’ plans to start flying its newest aircraft, the Airbus A220, by the end of this month could also be affected.
TSA has downplayed reports that a rise in airport screeners calling out sick – or even quitting their jobs – has led to long lines at security. The agency has pumped out tweets every day claiming that 99.9 percent of passengers are clearing security in less than a half hour while around 94 percent are making it through in 15 minutes or less. TSA spokesman Michael Bilello conceded that the screener absentee rate is up, but said it was only slightly higher than normal for this time of year.
However, that could change as the shutdown, which began on Dec. 22, enters its third week – and possibly the history books if it surpasses the previous 21-day record for the longest government closure. Funding to keep the government open ran out when Congress couldn’t come to an agreement on President Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a wall on the southern border.
Among other things, the impasse has prompted TSA’s union to file a lawsuit demanding that their members be paid, and union officials have raised the specter of screeners walking off the job permanently if they don’t get relief.
U.S. Travel Association Executive Vice President Jonathan Grella noted that airports, visas and Customs appeared largely unaffected by the partial federal shutdown before Monday – the beginning of the first full work week after the holidays. “But if aspects of the shutdown are beginning to hinder the air travel process, political leaders need to understand that there will be immediate and measurable harm to the U.S. economy and jobs — and those concerns are non-partisan,” he said.
The association estimates that the standoff is costing the economy $100 million a day just in lost travel expenditures.
The Global Business Travel Association said that a survey of more than 400 members this week revealed that more than two-thirds of those polled are concerned about a negative impact on their business if the shutdown continues beyond this weekend.
“The widespread impact on the business travel industry is undeniable,” said Michael McCormick, executive director and chief operating officer for GBTA.