(The Hill) – The government is days away from a Nov. 18 shutdown, which could force Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees and federal air traffic controllers to work without pay just as the busy Thanksgiving travel season begins.
Around 4.7 million people are expected to fly over the five-day period surrounding Thanksgiving, the highest projection in nearly two decades, according to a new forecast released Monday by AAA.
These are the busiest travel days of the year and could coincide with a government shutdown unless Congress comes together on a deal in the next few days. Absent some kind of new funding bill, the government would shut down on Saturday.
Travel industry officials and advocates are amping up their warnings, saying the nation risks a messy travel season if lawmakers are unable to reach a deal.
“We are quickly approaching what is forecasted to be the busiest travel period since before the pandemic; and it’s critical that policymakers work together to avoid a shutdown and support continued, safe, and efficient airport operations,” Kevin M. Burke, president and CEO of the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA), told The Hill.
More than 50,000 TSA officers and 13,000 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers would continue to work without pay until the government is funded.
The TSA workers are among the lowest paid in the government, however, and during the last shutdown, in 2019, large numbers called in sick weeks into the shutdown where they’d miss pay. That pressure was credited in part with ending that standoff in Congress.
TSA workers are expected to get their next paycheck just as the shutdown begins, which could alleviate some stress in the near term over Thanksgiving, at least.
The Biden administration warned ahead of the last near-shutdown at the end of September that it could cause delays and longer wait times at America’s airports.
“Previous shutdowns have affected every function of aviation and air travel and have specifically harmed regional airports and put a strain on air traffic controllers nationwide,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), co-chair of Travel Caucus and ranking member of the Commerce Aviation Subcommittee, told The Hill.
Here’s how a shutdown could affect the nation’s airports.
Longer screening times
Airports and TSA have gotten busier and busier since the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
The TSA screens on average 2.5 million passengers each day, a figure that surpasses pre-pandemic travel totals.
While TSA will have airports staffed for the Thanksgiving season regardless of whether there’s a shutdown, it’s possible the number of workers showing up to screen travelers will fall the longer they are going without pay.
“Because fewer workers are on the job during a shutdown, TSA security lines could be longer or there could be flight delays due to fewer air traffic controllers. If you’re flying during a shutdown, arrive at the airport extra early,” Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, told The Hill.
The Denver International Airport, ranked the third-busiest airport in North America for passenger travel in 2022 by the ACI-NA, estimates around 500,000 passengers will pass through TSA checkpoints between Nov. 18 and 25, said Stephanie Figueroa, a public information officer at the Denver airport.
While Figueroa stressed it’s still too far out to have firm figures, she said the airport relies on federal agency partners including the capacity of TSA officers and air traffic controllers to keep those passengers moving smoothly.
“The prior shutdown did result in traveler frustration, with passengers forced to endure increased wait times and travel delays at many airports, especially as the shutdown continued for an extended time,” Figueroa said.
Personnel “will do their best to meet wait time standards of 10 minutes and under for TSA PreCheck lanes and 30 minutes and under for standard screening lanes at security checkpoints,” a TSA spokesperson told The Hill.
“An extended shutdown could mean longer wait times at airports.”
The last government shutdown spanned 35 days from Dec. 22, 2018, through Jan. 25, 2019, and was the longest in American history.
During the shutdown, the national rate of airport screener absences more than tripled from 3 percent to 10 percent, according to a September 2023 analysis by Tourism Economics.
TSA officer call-outs increased by 200 percent to 300 percent at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, ranked the second-busiest airport for North American passenger travel by AIC-NA in 2022, the analysis found.
“It’s very hard for anybody to go for 20 days, 30 days, 40 days or longer without receiving a paycheck. It impacts the ability of people to get to work, to pay to put gas in their vehicles, to pay for parking. It impacts their ability to pay the individuals that provide care for their children,” the TSA spokesperson said.
Delays and cancellations
Once passengers make it past security, air traffic controller shortages mean more flights may get delayed or canceled.
The U.S. is already experiencing a shortage of air traffic controllers, in part due to a training backlog created by COVID. To close the gap, the FAA said it has hired 1,500 controllers this year and plans to hire an additional 1,800 next year.
A government shutdown would pause hiring, training and technology upgrades. Certain “safety-critical” workers including air traffic controllers, technicians and safety inspectors would keep working, although they wouldn’t be paid until the government reopens.
“Even though the FAA would carry out its mission, a government shutdown would set the agency back on critical efforts,” an FAA spokesperson told The Hill. “Even a shutdown for a week would set the agency back a month.”
With air traffic controller ranks already down, it could take longer for flights to get off the ground — if they do at all — if those employees start calling out.
Flight cancellations ticked up to 2.86 percent in January 2019 from 1.14 percent in December 2018 and 1.07 in the preceding month, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. The percentage of outbound delayed flights was actually below the annual average for both years.
“Critical functions at the FAA can be suspended during a shutdown, causing significant issues for aircraft manufacturers and regional airports, and – importantly – passengers needing to get to their next destination quickly and safely,” Moran said.
The economic impact
Travel advocates urged lawmakers to avoid hamstringing the industry during the busy holiday season.
“Travelers, especially heading into a peak travel season, need certainty that operations will continue without the interruption or added hassles that a government shutdown could surely create,” Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, told The Hill.
“A completely avoidable shutdown threatens a steep economic toll on the U.S. travel economy,” Barnes added.
Overall, a shutdown could cost the travel industry and broader economy as much as $140 million per day, according to the Tourism Economics analysis. That forecast includes declines in air, rail and government-related business travel and the closure of attractions including National Parks and museums.
Around $36 billion of that total would hit the air travel industry each day.
“Commercial aviation plays a vital role in the American economy, supporting 5% of the U.S. GDP and more than 10 million jobs. Failure to adequately fund the FAA and TSA risks our ability to function efficiently and is not conducive to the growth and vitality of our airspace,” Marli Collier, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, told The Hill.