Congress has until September 30 to reach a deal on a new budget in order to avoid a government shutdown. While typically associated with political gridlock, the disruptive nature of the event could impact travelers, too.
Without a deal, the shutdown will begin on October 1 and affect several aspects of travel, including at the country’s airports, national parks, and museums.
Here’s how various travel-related entities will be affected by a government shutdown.
Will TSA and air travel be affected by the government shutdown?
Not everything grinds to a halt when the government shuts down—planes will still fly. That’s because certain federal employees are deemed “essential” and are required to continue working. At airports, that includes TSA agents, air traffic controllers, and customs officials who report to the government. During government shutdowns, those employees are expected to work but aren’t paid as usual (in the past, they’ve been paid for their hours once the shutdown ended). However, the longer a shutdown goes on, the more challenging it has been to keep essential workers coming in.
During the 2019 shutdown, which lasted five weeks, hundreds of TSA screeners opted not to go to work (some calling in sick, others pivoting to other jobs that could pay on time), which slowed down operations and made for longer security lines at their airports. As the shutdown wore on, airports were forced to close some security checkpoints.
Thus, if you’re traveling by air during a shutdown, it’s a good idea to get to the airport earlier than usual in case there are any backlogs.
The 2019 shutdown also added to the already stressful nature of air traffic controllers’ jobs. Paul Rinaldi, then president of the Air Traffic Controllers Association, told CNN that “the biggest toll I have right now is the human toll, the fatigue in my work environment right now where I’m seeing routine mistakes because they’re thinking about which credit cards can I consolidate up for zero interest?”
When just 10 air traffic controllers called out of work, it temporarily shut down travel at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and caused delays at other major hubs (they were credited by some publications for finally bringing the shutdown to an end). That’s because air traffic controllers have a highly specialized job, and they cannot be easily replaced.
A more long-term issue is that a shutdown would pause the training of new air traffic controllers—currently, there is a shortage of 3,000 air traffic controllers, a problem that was exacerbated by the pandemic and will take years to fix.
Luckily, passport and visa processing should carry on (and shouldn’t lengthen the current 10- to 13-week wait). Per the State Department’s contingency plan, consular services will be offered both domestically and abroad . Similarly, TSA PreCheck enrollment centers will operate as normal because it’s a fee-funded program and not reliant on federal funding.
How the government shutdown could affect national parks
There’s no word yet from the National Park Service (funds for which are mostly appropriated by Congress) about what will happen to the 435 national park sites (including historic sites, monuments, recreation areas, and 63 full-fledged national parks) should the government shut down.
During the 2013 shutdown, which lasted 16 days, all parks were closed to prevent damage, a decision that was met with intense scrutiny.
However, during the 2019 shutdown, some parks closed, and others remained open, albeit with skeleton crews there more for law enforcement than serving as park rangers. While the protected lands remained accessible to the public, no staffers were at the gates taking money for tickets or checking park passes, operating information centers, or helping to keep the parks clean, and it took its toll on the protected lands, causing damage to the outdoor spaces we consider special. Trash cans at national parks and monuments overflowed with garbage, human waste around locked outhouses and toilet facilities posed a health hazard, and people died in the parks.
After more than a month without collecting visitor fees, the National Park Service said it had lost $500 million in revenue (not including the financial burdens created by cleanup efforts) during the 2019 shutdown. That’s money that is normally used for repair, maintenance, and facility enhancements; visitor safety; accessibility; visitor services; and habitat restoration, per the National Park Service.
Some states might try to keep their parks open if there’s a shutdown, using alternative funds. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs announced that Grand Canyon National Park would stay open, using funding from the Arizona Lottery. Similarly, Utah’s lawmakers are working on a plan to keep its five national parks open.
Museums could feel the impact, too
Museums and zoos that are locally, state, or privately owned would remain open during a shutdown. However, museums and zoos that are federally funded, like the Smithsonian Institution, might have to close, depending on how long the shutdown drags on.
During the 2019 shutdown, the Smithsonian Institution (which manages 21 museums, all but 3 of which are in Washington, D.C., including the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air & Space Museum, as well as the National Zoo) was able to keep its facilities open and staffed for 11 days by using funds from the previous year. After that, everything was closed, and employees were furloughed for 27 days.
Like the national parks, there’s no word yet on what the contingency plan for this year would look like. And, of course, there is still time for Congress to reach a deal and make the point moot.