Date
January 11, 2019

The ongoing partial US federal government shutdown will likely cause increasing disruptions to air travel in the US in the coming weeks unless the impasse is resolved. While the shutdown is currently causing few disruptions to air travel, it has the potential to cause very serious disruptions if federal employees begin to walk off the job in significant numbers. Regardless of the length of the shutdown, its primary impact on air travel will be more disruptive than dangerous, as the shutdown's air-safety impacts will likely remain low.

 

Key Judgments

  • The ongoing partial US federal government shutdown is not currently causing major disruptions to air travel in the US. 
  • The shutdown is unlikely to threaten passenger safety even if it continues for an extended period.
  • The shutdown's impact on air travelers will likely increase gradually in the coming weeks.

 

Current Status

The partial US federal government shutdown is not currently causing severe disruptions to air travel, though there are signs that disruptions could increase in the near future. Almost all essential employees with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are continuing to report to work, despite missing their most recent paychecks.

 

Most media reports on air travel during the government shutdown have focused on TSA screeners, with anecdotal reports of increased sick leave among TSA screeners causing longer wait times. Checkpoint wait-time data, however, suggests that average wait times have not significantly increased during the shutdown. TSA screeners have been calling in sick at higher rates compared to the months before the shutdown, but TSA and airport officials say this is a common trend in the period immediately following the holidays, and that TSA screeners are taking sick leave at a rate similar to previous Januarys. One of the few reports of TSA staff shortages affecting flight operations came from Miami International Airport (MIA), which will shift approximately 12 flights to a different concourse over the weekend of Jan. 12-13 to reduce the number of checkpoints that need to be staffed.

 

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Air traffic controllers (ATCs) and CBP officers are the two other main groups of employees in the air travel sector who have been required to work without pay during the shutdown. There have not been reports of the shutdown significantly affecting ATC operations. There have been anecdotal reports of long lines at immigration and customs facilities during the shutdown, but long waits are common at such facilities even during normal operations. It is unclear whether the shutdown has exacerbated these issues, or travelers are simply blaming the shutdown for a pre-existing problem.

 

The partial federal government shutdown's impact on air travel is likely to worsen gradually in the coming weeks. Staffing levels at ATC, CBP, and TSA facilities will likely decrease gradually, causing steadily increasing disruptions to air travel. A sudden drop in staffing levels from a strike or other coordinated action is unlikely.

 

While most essential federal employees have continued to report to work during the shutdown, this trend will likely change as the shutdown continues. Most federal employees did not miss a paycheck until Jan. 11, which has likely contributed to the low absentee rate. Now that they have missed a paycheck, some federal employees may be more inclined toward absenteeism. However, the number of employees skipping work or taking leave is not likely to reach levels causing significant staff shortages at ATC, CBP, or TSA facilities - especially among those in positions designated as essential personnel.

 

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CBP and TSA staff shortages will likely cause longer lines at security checkpoints and immigration facilities. Airports may follow MIA's example and consolidate flights in certain concourses to reduce the number of checkpoints that need to be staffed, and airlines may adjust international flights' arrival times to reduce the flow of travelers through customs and immigrations facilities during peak times. Screening of checked baggage is likely to slow as well, which may lead to more instances of checked baggage missing flights. Travelers should allow more time for transiting airports as the shutdown goes on and schedule longer layovers when connecting from international flights to domestic flights in the US. Airlines will be forced to cancel flights if staffing levels among federal employees, including ATCs, drop significantly.

 

A strike or other mass action from ATC, CBP, or TSA employees would cause massive disruption to air travel in the US, but such an action is unlikely. Strikes by federal employees are illegal, and there is precedent for the federal government firing striking workers en masse, though the fact that the government has not paid the workers may complicate efforts to discipline or fire federal employees who refuse to work. So far, almost all discussion of a federal employee strike has come from political activists, not from federal employees themselves. A union representing ATCs has filed a lawsuit claiming that requiring the controllers to work without pay is illegal; the lawsuit is unlikely to have a short-term impact, but its medium-term impact is unclear.

 

Regardless of disciplinary measures, a mass walkout by any of these groups, especially TSA screeners, would effectively bring all commercial air travel in the US to a halt. Federal law and international treaties require all passengers to go through security screening conducted by qualified screeners before boarding a commercial flight, and replacing striking security screeners would be impossible on short notice. Only 22 US airports have privately contracted security screeners, and most of these are small airports with few daily flights. Airports would be unable to replace striking TSA screeners with private contractors on a wide scale during the shutdown, as the approval process for such contractors runs through TSA, meaning it would be affected by the shutdown. A strike by ATC or CBP employees would also have an enormous impact, though the government could use military or police personnel to fill some roles, albeit at a significantly reduced capacity.

 

Safety Impact

The ongoing partial government shutdown is unlikely to pose a significant threat to passenger safety. While the shutdown has forced the FAA to suspend some safety-related activities and placed increased stress on individuals continuing to work in safety-critical positions, the combination of US airlines' strong safety cultures and multilayered safety systems will likely keep air travelers safe during the shutdown.

 

The government shutdown has forced the FAA to furlough much of its workforce, including safety inspectors and maintenance personnel who maintain much of the country's aviation infrastructure. The lack of safety inspectors has left airlines responsible for ensuring their own compliance with FAA regulations. All major US carriers have strong safety cultures and will likely remain in compliance with FAA regulations despite the lack of inspections. The lack of safety inspectors is a greater concern for travelers flying on smaller carriers, where safety cultures may not be as robust as those of the major carriers. The shutdown has also forced the FAA to furlough technicians who maintain vital aspects of the US aviation infrastructure, including ATC and navigation equipment. The FAA says it will call personnel back to maintain equipment as needed, but some maintenance will likely be deferred. All key aspects of US aviation infrastructure have back-up systems, so an equipment failure is unlikely to threaten passenger safety.

 

Conclusion

The shutdown will likely increase stress and fatigue levels for federal employees who remain at work, increasing the risk of mistakes. However, the multilayered nature of modern aviation safety should mitigate the safety impacts of such mistakes. All airliners in the US, for example, have collision warning systems that are independent of ATC, which should help prevent any ATC mistakes from causing midair collisions. A mistake by a TSA screener, meanwhile, would only threaten passenger safety if it happened at the exact time a malicious individual was attempting to bring a prohibited item through a security checkpoint or in his checked luggage. Travelers will likely notice steadily greater impacts from the partial US federal government shutdown the longer it continues; however, it is unlikely to become dangerous for air travelers. Nevertheless, significant disruptions to air travel in the US remain possible.

 

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