Pete Buttigieg Details What a Government Shutdown Will Mean for Travelers

"No large organization, least of all the federal government, is designed to just flip on and off like a light switch."

Right now, an uncontrollable travel catastrophe is looming over all of our heads. Come October 1, the gears of the federal government could very possibly grind to a screeching halt. While the Senate has approved a spending deal, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is being pushed by a slew of hard-right House Republicans to reject proposals that would avoid a government shutdown. If Congress fails to pass some sort of funding legislation before the October 1 deadline, a large portion (anything classified as "non-essential") of the federal government will stop operating and workers will be furloughed.

In a Wednesday interview, Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told Thrillist that the shutdown is "basically a hostage tactic in order for House Republicans to try to get through severe cuts that they have proposed." The last time there was a government shutdown was in December 2018. The shutdown lasted for 35 days—then-President Trump was demanding funding for a US-Mexico border wall, and Democratic lawmakers objected to that.

For the American people, one of the biggest impacts of the shutdown will be felt in the travel sector. Previous shutdowns caused major delays, cancellations, and long wait times at airports. After a year of making steady progress addressing the air travel industry's largest issues—including air traffic controller shortages, habitual delays, airline refunds, and outdated FAA technology—Secretary Buttigieg says a government shutdown will not only cause the same issues as previous shutdowns, but will also sabotage hard-won improvements to the industry.

"We saw an all-time record high in terms of the number of passengers screened by TSA this summer, which is one of many reasons why this is the exact wrong time for a government shutdown," Buttigieg explained. "To be clear, there's no good time for a government shutdown, but now, in particular, would be disruptive when we can least afford it."

Here's what you need to know about the potential government shutdown and how it could affect your next trip.

TSA and air traffic controllers will have to stay on the job

Currently, the federal government employs more than 13,000 air traffic controllers and 50,000 transportation security officers. If the government shuts down, those workers would still be required to show up, without pay.

"From the first day, air traffic controllers would no longer be paid," Buttigieg says. "TSA screeners would no longer be paid. Nothing good comes of that, for them or for the system."

Given that these are already high-stress jobs—there's a pivotal role they play in maintaining public safety and, for TSA officers, there's the added headache of dealing with people at the airport—doing them without pay is unlikely to yield desirable results for anyone involved.

Air traffic controller hiring will be affected

If you've been affected by delays, cancellations, and other airport runway oddities in the last year, you're likely familiar with the air traffic controller shortage impacting the entire US. In New York and other major hubs, summer airline schedules were cut due to these staffing shortages. It has been a top priority for Buttigieg and the DOT to train and hire for these positions, but a shutdown would stop the department from growing its air traffic control workforce, Buttgieg says.

"Remember, this system is straining to keep up with the demand in terms of staffing," the transportation secretary continued. "We need about 3,000 more controllers than we have. We've got 1,500 we were able to hire this year, and are hoping to hire 1,800 next year. But a shutdown would stop training immediately. And a halt to training means we can't bring new people into new positions. If we can't do that, there's a much higher risk that shortages will lead to delays."

You should factor a shutdown into your fall travel plans

According to Tripadvisor, 74% of Americans plan on traveling this fall. If you are traveling by air, you'll absolutely need to factor the shutdown into those plans. Even if the shutdown only ends up lasting for a few weeks, it could still have consequences in the travel industry for months to come.

"No large organization, least of all the federal government, is designed to just flip on and off like a light switch," Buttigieg says. "A disruption lasting a few weeks would set us back by months, and probably be felt for at least a year when it comes to things like growing our air traffic control workforce, which we need to do just in order to keep up. So we would fall further behind and, yeah, these disruptions would be felt long past when a shutdown itself officially ended."

With air traffic controllers and TSA workers staying on the job, you don't need to cancel your plans outright—but you should anticipate longer wait times at the airports and potential delays and cancellations. Not only that but recent protections put in place to get refunds from airlines and assistance from the DOT may take longer to process.

"It will be a good idea to allow a little extra cushion in your travel plans, to closely follow updates from your airline, as well as on the news," Buttigieg says. "Now, to be clear, the passenger protections that we've already secured, those are there. They're on the books and we have an Office of Consumer Protection that enforces them, but those personnel might be furloughed. So if you file a complaint, for example, with an issue that you have [or] you're trying to get a refund, we'll get to it, but it will take longer, in the event of a shutdown."

Plan on giving yourself extra time at to get through airport security, and make reservations cancellable and flexible where you can. Some hotels and tours have flexible booking policies that can be helpful if your travel ends up getting delayed due to flight changes and cancellations. 

The potential travel impacts don't end there. As CBS News reports, National Park Service operations would be affected by a shutdown, and passport processing times could grow even lengthier due to some passport agencies being forced to close.

Challenges are still possible if the government doesn't shut down

One point that Secretary Buttigieg stressed is that certain federal budget demands could also lead to detrimental effects for the travel industry. That hostage tactic Buttigieg referred to? It includes a Republican push for cuts on DOT spending.

"If they get their way on the cuts, even with no shutdown, that's going to impact travelers. Those cuts will affect things like our IT modernization for the FAA. Think about that system that went out for about an hour and a half one day in January, and the havoc that created," Buttigieg explained in reference to a January 2023 FAA systems outage that caused nationwide flight delays.

"The race to prevent those kinds of outages gets harder with those cuts. These are cuts that also can affect safety. Railroad safety inspections are one of the things that would be cut by the House Republicans' proposal," Buttigieg says. "So we have to worry not just about a shutdown, but about what they try to demand in exchange for keeping the government open. And these two are things that affect the traveling public a great deal."

These are funding decisions that might not be felt as immediately as a shutdown, but could contribute to a resurgence of chaotic traveling circumstances we've seen in recent years. It will likely not only make the conditions of traveling worse, but it will also impact passenger safety. Those scary near-miss news stories? They could become more common with a severely understaffed air traffic control workforce.

"Getting the system to where it needs to be, staff-wise and technology-wise, is already a huge challenge," Buttigieg says. "Even if there's no shutdown, there's a big challenge in front of us because demand is through the roof, systems are aging, and there need to be more staff. So this is already something that's going to take everything we've got. It just gets that much harder each passing day if there's a shutdown or if there are cuts."

The DOT has goals for air travel improvements, no matter what

Even without the looming threat of a government shutdown, airline travel in the US has plenty of room for improvement. Seats aren't comfortable, people are getting trapped on hot tarmacs, planes are directionally confused on the runway, and airlines seem too relaxed when it comes to squeezing customers for every dollar they can.

The Department of Transportation is, at the very least, aware of it.

"What we need to do is double down on the improvements that have been happening. So that means more staff and better technology. We've got to see through these rules that we're working on to hold airlines accountable," Buttigieg says. "We've made huge progress compared to a year and a half ago, but we know there's more to do."

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.