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Going to the Airport Soon? A Government Shutdown Could Snarl Your Plans

TSA, air-traffic-control and customs staffers would be required to keep working, but fliers should prepare for delays

By Allison Pohle

Updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 11:47 am ET

Travelers are wondering whether a potential U.S. government shutdown would thwart their upcoming flights and other travel plans. 

The shutdown would start on Oct. 1 and affect workers at airports, national parks and museums. Here’s what to know if you’re traveling in early October and Congress fails to pass spending legislation by then.

Would my flight be affected?

Likely yes. Transportation Security Administration officers must still report to work because they are essential personnel, said Becky Mancha, a TSA officer in Dallas who is a regional vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing TSA workers. The same goes for air-traffic controllers.

Their working without pay could create significant delays and longer wait times for travelers at airports across the U.S., the White House said in a news release. 

Asking workers to show up without pay hasn’t always been smooth: During the 35-day shutdown that stretched from 2018 into early 2019, many TSA employees started calling in sick after they missed paychecks.

When a handful of air-traffic controllers called in sick during that shutdown, an air-traffic bottleneck hit U.S. airports. The shutdown ended soon after.

“Failing to fully fund the FAA puts the world’s safest aviation system at risk,” Capt. Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association said in a written statement, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration and pointing to slowdowns and the loss of safety personnel during previous shutdowns. The association represents more than 75,000 airline pilots in the U.S. and Canada. 

Would there be longer lines at U.S. Customs?

The Department of Homeland Security hasn’t released an updated shutdown plan. But a 2022 plan says most Customs and Border Protection employees are considered essential during a shutdown, and therefore expected to work despite not receiving regular paychecks. 

Would airlines allow free flight changes or refunds if I don’t want to fly?

Airlines haven’t issued travel warnings or waivers for the government shutdown, but point to their current policies, which waive change fees for most flights. Those policies still require passengers to pay the difference between the old fare and the new one.

Would my passport application get held up?

Not right away. Passport operations aren’t expected to be immediately affected.

But if a passport agency is located in a government building affected by any lapse, the facility might pause operations, according to a State Department document that details plans during a pause in funding.

If I need a U.S. Embassy or consulate overseas, would it be open?

Yes. All U.S. embassies and consulates abroad would be operational, the State Department says. 

Would national parks close?

The National Park Service hasn’t released a shutdown contingency plan. 

The Trump administration kept parks open in 2019, but there weren’t enough staffers because most were furloughed during the shutdown. Many natural resources were damaged during that time, as restrooms were closed, trash cans overflowed and emergency responses were limited.

The national-park system closed during a 2013 government shutdown. Shutdowns affect national parks differently, said Sheridan Steele, the former superintendent of Acadia National Park, during a webinar put on by the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. He is on the executive council of the organization. 

Some national parks, such as Rocky Mountain in Colorado, have a limited number of defined entrances that can be closed, he said. Others, such as Acadia in Maine, are a “patchwork quilt of park units,” and don’t have stations at every entrance, meaning people can still enter during a closure. 

Acadia is about to have some of its busiest weeks of the year, with the draw of fall foliage. It would face challenges with maintenance and protecting natural resources during a shutdown, Steele said.

Some states might choose to use their own funding to keep national parks open. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said the state would use short-term funding options to finance limited operations in its five national parks, including Zion and Arches, if a shutdown were to occur. Cox said the state expects to be reimbursed by the U.S. Interior Department.