How a government shutdown could affect air travel, TSA, and flight delays

Ross Feinstein weighed in on the immediate impacts for air travel.

September 28, 2023, 4:41 PM

As federal agencies begin warning workers to prepare for a government shutdown, Americans have raised concerns as to how it could affect upcoming travel plans, from TSA wait times at the airport to passport processing.

As ABC News reported previously, lawmakers have until the end of the day Sept. 30 to reach a deal that funds the federal government, or it will shut down at 12:01 a.m. ET on Sunday. With House Republicans fractured over Speaker Kevin McCarthy's proposals and a bipartisan Senate stopgap bill all but dead on arrival, a shutdown is becoming more and more likely.

How a government shutdown could impact travel

Ross Feinstein, a strategic communications professional who has worked for a handful of government agencies -- including as the former spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration -- shared his insight as someone who has been through a government shutdown before.

"It should be business as usual. And I caveat that as it should be, because government employees that work for the TSA, [U.S. Customs and Border Protection], and the Federal Aviation Administration -- air traffic controllers -- they're considered essential employees that are required to work during government shutdown," he explained. "Ultimately, those employees are required to stay on the job and work like normal."

"For a passenger, it should be normal," he continued, adding that "TSA officers, CBP officers and air traffic controllers with the FAA should be at their office or in air traffic controllers or at airports like normal," and that "the government is paying these employees on an IOU basis."

When the government reopens, Feinstein said furloughed employees are guaranteed to be paid back, but in the interim, he said those individuals "might be living paycheck to paycheck ... unable to potentially pay their rent" or for things like "family assistance" or groceries.

PHOTO: Departing travelers wait at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security checkpoint at Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) in Baltimore, Maryland, April 26, 2023.
Departing travelers wait at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security checkpoint at Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) in Baltimore, Maryland, April 26, 2023.
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"It's really unfair to them that a political fight in Washington, D.C., is ultimately going to require a federal government employee to have an IOU with the federal government," he added.

On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said air travel will remain safe in a shutdown, but that training for new air traffic controllers will pause, with 1,000 trainees furloughed.

Feinstein, who also previously worked for American Airlines, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, also addressed whether or not airline passengers could expect longer wait times or delays at the airport.

"We've seen in the past that some employees haven't come to work [during a shutdown], so there have been delays in TSA checkpoints," he said. "So, that's a real risk here."

He added, "It can definitely mean that air traffic controllers might not show up to work. It can mean TSA officers aren't at the checkpoints. It could be that CBP officers aren't in or greeting those international arrivals, and customs lines could be longer."

Ultimately, Feinstein said airlines could "potentially have to cancel flights because air traffic controllers are not in place and they have to slow down the number of departures and arrivals into major U.S. airports."

"It's the uncertainty here that we just don't know," he said.

Feinstein encouraged customers who are flying during a government shutdown "to thank those TSA officers" who are "doing a lot of work under a stressful situation when they have no idea when they'll be paid, but they're showing up to work anyway because they're an essential employee."

Could a government shutdown affect passport processing

When it comes to passport and visa processing, those operations -- which have notably slowed since the pandemic -- should continue during a shutdown "as the situation permits," according to guidance the State Department gave employees last week.

Feinstein said "passport processing will continue as normal for a period of time" because "they have different appropriations for that process, just like TSA PreCheck applications, because those are user funded."

Consulates in the U.S. and abroad will also stay open "as long as there are sufficient fees to support operations," the State Department guidance said.