A government shutdown would threaten air travel and safety
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A government shutdown would threaten air travel and safety

November 13, 2023

As the holiday season begins, the government is at risk of shutting its doors unless Congress passes necessary spending measures or another continuing resolution by Nov. 17.  

As excepted employees—those who perform jobs that affect our national health, safety, emergency response and other critical functions—air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration officers would have to work without pay if the government shuts down.  

As seen during previous shutdowns, this would disrupt the safety of the nation’s airspace and cause major delays for travelers during one of the busiest travel periods of the year. 

Air travel during the 2018-19 shutdown 

In response to the five-week partial government shutdown in 2018-2019, significant numbers of TSA agents routinely called out of work. Sick days spiked almost immediately after the shutdown began and steadily increased over its 35-day duration. At one point, the national rate for unscheduled absences for TSA agents reached 10%, a steep increase from the previous year’s rate of just over 3%. 

The callouts led to long lines at airports—with wait times to get through TSA checkpoints lasting more than an hour in some places—and forced the Miami and Houston airports to temporarily close terminals. The additional absences of TSA workers also led to increased concerns about the safety of air travel.  

According to union leaders, the TSA “sick out” was not a coordinated effort, although some employees were protesting the lack of government funding. Because of financial difficulties, many others missed shifts to work second jobs or because they could not afford child care.  

Due to the agency’s siloed personnel system, TSA officers don’t receive routine raises like other federal employees and don’t have the same collective bargaining rights. Their pay has lagged behind their counterparts elsewhere in government as a result. 

The impact on air traffic controllers 

A shutdown would similarly strain air traffic controllers, who already work long hours under the tremendous responsibility of maintaining the reliability and safety of the nation’s aviation network. For the sake of security, they will continue to do so without pay if the government closes. 

A lapse in appropriations this year could disrupt the agency’s hiring and training of new air traffic controllers, as it did in fiscal year 2019. The 2018-2019 shutdown also caused some controllers to retire early, adding to what was then a 30-year low of fully certified air traffic controllers. 

The FAA’s shortage of air traffic controllers continues to this day—resulting in flight delays that would further stress those forced to work during a shutdown and occur just before the Thanksgiving holiday.  

During the last shutdown, it only took 10 air traffic controllers calling out sick on the same day to temporarily halt travel at LaGuardia airport in New York City and cause delays at several international airports.  

The time to act is now 

It is imperative for our elected leaders to work swiftly to fully fund the government. In the coming weeks and months, millions of Americans will be taking to the skies and should be spared from further delays at the airport during peak travel season.  

Federal employees should be able to enjoy the holidays with their families without worrying about their next paycheck, and the public deserves to have a properly functioning government that serves as a good steward of our tax dollars.  

Visit our website to learn more about government shutdowns, why they harm our country, and how Congress can fix our broken budget and appropriations processes.

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