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Here's How A Government Shutdown Might Affect Your Air Travel Plans

A government shutdown may have consequences for travelers and airport staff.
A government shutdown may have consequences for travelers and airport staff.

A government shutdown may have consequences for travelers and airport staff.

If Congress isn’t able to strike a deal on a short-term government funding bill, the United States government will effectively shut down come Oct. 1, an event that will force all “nonessential” government employees to stop working and, as a result, impact the lives of everyday Americans. 

Earlier this week, former presidential candidate and current U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg went on the record about how the shutdown will impact the travel industry, specifically. “Especially when it comes to transportation, the consequences would be disruptive and dangerous,” he said during a press conference. 


It also appears Americans are concerned about the potential chaos, too: According to a survey by the U.S. Travel Association and market research company Ipsos, “six in ten Americans would cancel or avoid trips by air in the event of a shutdown.”

But is that really necessary? How, exactly, will a potential shutdown affect air travel? Here’s what to know:

Will my flight be delayed or canceled if there’s a shutdown?

If a funding deal isn’t reached, Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Safety Administration staff members will still be required to report to work because they are considered essential employees. 

The various air traffic controllers, security screeners and more who make up the workforce will, however, not be paid for their time on site until the government reopens ― at which point they will receive back pay. That can impact workers’ morale and, perhaps, their ability to conduct business. 

Government employees who are told to keep working without any idea of when they’ll be paid might decide not to report for duty. The uncertainty is likely to exacerbate stress and mental health issues, and, of course, the whole situation could trigger massive flight delays and cancellations.

During his press conference, Buttigieg also mentioned that, in the event of a shutdown, programs dedicated to training new employees will be stopped. Folks currently in the middle of said programs will be furloughed since the government does not consider their work essential.

“We now have 2,600 air traffic controllers in training. A government shutdown would stop that training,” he said. “Even a shutdown lasting a few weeks could set us back by months or more because of how complex that training is. We cannot afford that kind of politically driven disruption at the very moment when we finally have those air traffic control workforce numbers headed in the right direction.”

Should I just cancel or change my flight myself?

Logistically speaking, you don’t necessarily have to cancel your trip in the event of a shutdown because airport employees will be expected to report to work regardless.

“Travelers should not worry about their travel plans if a shutdown does happen,” said Kerry Tan, an associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland. “Once they get to their final destination, then everything should be like normal.”

That being said, we can’t imagine workers being happy about reporting to duty without pay and expect some of them to call in sick, so you should expect disruptions in your travel plans.

Be considerate to TSA officers. They will be working without pay at the time.Kerry Tan, associate professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland

If you want to play it safe and are able to do so, consider rescheduling your voyage — but, again, if there is a shutdown, it is unclear how long it will last and how deeply its effects will be felt.

If you decide not to reschedule, Tan noted that trying to be a bit more understanding than usual while traveling can help everyone involved feel better about the situation. 

“Just be aware [of potential delays] and be considerate to TSA officers,” he said. “They will be working without pay at the time.”

If you move forward with your travel plans, Tan has an important tip he thinks everyone should keep in mind.

“I would recommend that travelers arrive to the airport early in anticipation of longer wait times at airport security lines,” he suggested. “Although this is not a holiday weekend, I would treat the air travel process as if I was flying during a major holiday like Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

How have prior shutdowns affected the air travel industry?

Government shutdowns have happened in the past — most recently, a similar funding gap in late 2018 caused a major halt. At the time, a total of 800,000 federal workers were furloughed between Dec. 21, 2018, and Jan. 25, 2019.

For federal workers who were told to continue working, morale was low and many started calling out sick. Within the travel industry, that led to the actual closure of some airports, like LaGuardia in New York, and a whole lot of delays at other hubs. 

That is all to say: Prospective air travelers might not want to cancel their trip just yet, but beware that it might take you much longer to get to your desired destination if the shutdown happens.

When will I know if the shutdown happens?

The deadline for the government to pass a funding package ― and therefore avoid a shutdown ― is Saturday night at midnight, as the new fiscal year officially kicks off on Sunday, October 1. So, if you don’t hear about any sort of progress being made before then, you can assume that the shutdown is actually going to happen.

The clock is ticking, and we expect at least one more plan to be presented, but nothing is yet certain.