Airport Staffing Issues, National Park Closures—How a Government Shutdown Will Affect Your Travels

If Congress can’t reach a deal by September 30, national parks will close and several aspects of air travel—including TSA agents, air traffic controllers, and passport processing offices—will be affected.

A sign depicting that the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are temporarily closed due to a government shutdown

In the past, government shutdowns have led to the closure of national park sites like the Statue of Liberty

Photo by Shutterstock

“This is no joke for air travel,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tells AFAR on a Zoom call Thursday, just two days before the September 30 deadline for Congress to reach a deal on a new budget in order to avoid a government shutdown. “Even a shutdown lasting a few days would really set us back in a way that we’d be feeling well into next year.”

Without a deal, a government shutdown is set to begin on October 1 and will affect several aspects of travel, including the country’s airports, air travel systems, national parks, and museums.

According to Buttigieg, not only is the looming government shutdown a concern, but air travel also could experience a “double whammy of a government shutdown and Congress failing to reauthorize the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration].” The FAA’s five-year authorization cycle is also set to expire at the end of September and if the reauthorization doesn’t happen in time, “we would lose the ability to do about 50 million dollars a day worth of upgrades to systems around the country,” says Buttigieg.

The Transportation Secretary notes that this potential “double whammy” couldn’t come at a worse time, arriving just as the U.S. air travel system is finally starting to recover from major pandemic and postpandemic setbacks. The percentage of canceled flights, for instance, has finally dipped below prepandemic levels.

“It really is a chaotic and completely avoidable set of conditions for the air traffic and aviation system to deal with when we’ve already been through enough,” says Buttigieg, adding that while “there’s been enormous progress,” there’s still so much work to do, and that a shutdown or a failure to reauthorize the FAA would “throw all of that upside down.”

Here’s how various travel-related entities will be affected by a government shutdown.

Air traffic control tower at an airport with hills and clouds in the background

Air traffic controllers are considered essential safety workers so they would still be required to work, but they would need to rely on backpay as they won’t get paid during the shutdown.

Photo by Shutterstock

How will TSA and air travel be affected by the government shutdown?

Not all federally backed systems grind 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.

“We’re talking about thousands and thousands of TSA officers who would not be getting paid. They’ll do what’s required of them, but to ask them to do that day after day without pay, each passing day that’s going to take more of a toll and each passing day we are more likely to see real disruptions in the system. If this starts on Sunday, I would expect by the end of the week there would be a real risk of chaotic disruptions in at least some locations around the U.S.,” says Buttigieg.

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.

Says Buttigieg, “If you just think about the intensity and the stress of that job even on a normal day, the last thing we want to do is to ask them to show up and do that job, which they will, they’re professionals, but to ask them to show up and do that job with the added stress of not knowing when their families are going to be able to benefit from a paycheck—it’s just absolutely unacceptable for a country like the United States of America.”

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. Buttigieg is also worried about the effect the shutdown will have on the progress that is being made to update the country’s aging air travel technology—outdated systems that have led to debilitating system crashes over the past year.

As for U.S. passport processing, per the State Department’s contingency plan, consular services will continue to be offered both domestically and abroad, and passport and visa processing should carry on. But Buttigieg says that there could be some hiccups.

For instance, some passport processing facilities will remain open and some will not. “It’s very confusing,” he says. “There’s no way it’s going to be completely free of impact if you have a shutdown of the federal government [and] if there’s some places where you can’t go make your [passport] appointment.”

TSA PreCheck enrollment centers should operate as normal because it’s a fee-funded program and not reliant on federal funding.

Aerial view of the Grand Canyon

Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs has said that Grand Canyon National Park would remain open during the shutdown by using alternate funding.

Courtesy of Barth Bailey/Unsplash

If there’s a government shutdown, national parks will close

The U.S. Department of Interior announced Friday that most National Park Service (NPS) sites will close in the event of a government shutdown.

“The majority of national parks will be closed completely to public access,” the Department of Interior said in a fact sheet provided to AFAR. “Gates will be locked, visitor centers will be closed, and thousands of park rangers will be furloughed.”

The National Park Service employs approximately 20,000 permanent, temporary, and seasonal workers, and it consists of 425 individual units that span more than 85 million acres. NPS sites include national parks, national monuments, national historic sites, and national recreation areas, among other designations.

Parks that wish to remain open can look for alternative funding sources from state, local or Tribal governments, or from other organizations or donations—but that money will not be reimbursed by the federal government. 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.

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 2018–2019 shutdown, some parks closed, and others remained open, albeit with skeleton crews that were more for law enforcement than for 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 their absence took its toll on the protected lands, allowing for 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 one person even 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 during the 2019 shutdown (not including the financial burdens created by cleanup efforts). 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.

This time, the Interior Department noted that national park areas that cannot be physically closed off to the public such as some roads, lookouts, trails, campgrounds, and memorials, will remain accessible to the public. “However, staffing levels and services including restroom and sanitation maintenance, trash collection, road maintenance, campground operations, and emergency operations will vary and are not guaranteed,” the agency warned.

The agency has asked the public to refrain from visiting even those public lands during the potential shutdown “out of consideration for protection of natural and cultural resources, as well as visitor safety.”

“During the last shutdown [in 2018–2019] when parks operated with only skeleton crews, we watched helplessly as Joshua trees were cut down, park buildings were vandalized, prehistoric petroglyphs were damaged, trash piled up, and human waste overflowed. And visitor safety at parks across the country was put at risk. We cannot allow history to repeat itself,” stated Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that aims to safeguard the country’s national parks.

The elephant in the lobby area at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History with a few visitors

In 2019, the Smithsonian Institute managed to keep its museums open for 11 days before it started to furlough employees for the remainder of the shutdown.

Courtesy of J. Amill Santiago/Unsplash

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 (which manages 21 museums, including the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.), might have to close, depending on how long the shutdown drags on.

During the 2019 shutdown, the Smithsonian Institution 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.

Of course, there is still a little time left for Congress to reach a deal and make the above points moot.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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