How will the USA government shutdown affect travel plans?

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Planes will take off. TSA and customs personnel will be on the job – but with their pay suspended, they might be cranky. And if the shutdown drags on, so will you. 

If the United States Congress fails to pass a short-term extension to the federal budget by Saturday, September 30, the government will shut down beginning at 12:01am on Sunday, October 1.

The travel industry is expecting fallout: the sector could lose up to $140 million a day, according to the US Travel Association, and domestic and international travelers may face delays or cancellations to their trips.

Here are some of the ways a USA government shutdown may affect your upcoming travel plans.

A TSA line at JFK airport, New York City, New York, USA
The last US government shutdown five years ago didn’t close airports – but did create long lines. Plan accordingly © Johannes Eisele / AFP via .

The impact of the government shutdown on flights in the USA

The four million US government workers who would not be able to collect paychecks during a government shutdown include more than 14,000 air traffic controllers, more than 60,000 US Customs and Border Protection workers and more than 60,000 Transportation Security Administration employees, including security officers, canine handlers, air marshals and explosives experts. 

Most all these federal employees are considered essential government workers and would be required to show up for duty. This means that security, immigration and customs lanes at airports around the country will be operating, and planes will continue to land and take off.

Still, travelers should be prepared for slowdowns at checkpoints and delays in the air if the shutdown is not resolved quickly. 

The TSA is already understaffed and currently screening more than 2.5 million passengers per day – more than pre-pandemic leves. Wait times at security checkpoints could start to increase if employees forced to work without paychecks start calling in sick, as they did when the 2019 partial government shutdown dragged on for weeks. 

Flight delays and cancellations could begin complicating plans if air-traffic controllers begin calling in sick, as they likewise did during the 2019 partial government shutdown, which stretched to 35 days.

A government shutdown now would also mean future delays as “we would immediately have to stop training new air traffic controllers and furlough another 1000 controllers who are already in the training pipeline,” Pete Buttigieg, the US transportation secretary, said in a news conference on September 27.  

The implementation of technology systems designed to make air travel safer and more efficient, such as NOTAM, NextGen and others, could also be delayed, notes aviation expert and travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. “While a short shutdown may not have much impact, I believe a prolonged shutdown may really disrupt this,” he said. 

What can you do? Keep an eye on your flight status. Arrive at the airport extra early to allow for checkpoint delays. Use the free checkpoint-reservation lane if your airport offers it. And be kind to the TSA officers and other airport workers who may be stressed and working without pay.

The impact of the government shutdown on US passport and visa issuance

Passport-processing wait times are already at an all-time high of 10 to 13 weeks, “and while operations will continue, certain agencies based in government buildings may cease to operate,” says Katy Nastro, a travel expert with Going.com, “But here too, the build of frustration due to no pay can lead to similar effects of longer processing times.”

What can you do? “There isn’t much to be done to hurry the process,” says Nastro. “You can apply for expedited processing retroactively on passports or seek an emergency passport. But even then, people are experiencing elongated processing times.”

Visitors to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are confronted with a sign informing them that the monuments are closed due to the government shutdown
A 2018 government shutdown affected access to national parks and monuments like the Statue of Liberty © rblfmr / Shutterstock

The impact of the government shutdown on national parks

As they did during previous government shutdowns, national parks and forests, national monuments and museums, and other federally managed recreational spaces may close entirely or operate with limited staff and services. And those with camping reservations in national parks may find themselves out of luck.

What can you do? If your travel itinerary is built around visits to federally run museums, monuments or parks, check (and recheck) their websites for updates on programs, closures and changes to hours. Research alternative museums and attractions before leaving home in case you arrive to find a federally run attraction shuttered. And if you don’t want to take chances on having your national-park camping reservation canceled, consider switching your booking to a state park or a private campground instead.

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