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A government shutdown could make air travel even worse

Juliana Kaplan   

A government shutdown could make air travel even worse
  • The government is set to run out of funding on September 30, and a shutdown seems likely.
  • Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg warns that might make air travel worse.

There's a government shutdown looming, and it might mean your travel nightmares could get even worse.

Come September 30, the government will run out of funding if Congress can't agree on a budget — and that looks like the most likely outcome at this point.

The impacts on air travel will be immediate, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told Insider. Air traffic controllers and TSA officers would stop getting paid, an economic burden on the workers the country depends upon to keep airports running.

"These are folks who come to work in a stressful and important job that is demanding on the best of days and they're supposed to come into work worried about how to pay their bills now and support their families and still do a good job," Buttigieg said.

Importantly, a shutdown could also jeopardize a crucial piece of ensuring flight safety and timeliness — enough air traffic controllers.

As of June, 77% of critical air traffic control facilities in the country were understaffed. While plenty of people want to be air traffic controllers, plugging shortage holes can come down to training. The role requires intensive training and comes with its own caveats: Applicants need to be below the age of 31, and workers have to retire by 56. In a shutdown, training gets shut down too.

The DOT has been making strides in curbing travel nightmares: Throughout 2023, air travel cancellations have stayed below 2%, according to the Air Travel Consumer Report — a far cry from the 2.7% cancellation rate in 2022. But that progress would be jeopardized in a shutdown, according to Buttigieg.

"That's happened because of the pressure we put on airlines and the work we're doing to grow our air traffic control workforce," Buttigieg said. "I cannot guarantee we can keep up those results if we are stopped from growing the workforce."

A shutdown of a few days or weeks could set back progress for "months," according to Buttigieg.

And, if and when your flight gets delayed or canceled, it might be harder to claw back compensation from airlines. Buttigieg said that a shutdown would halt rulemaking in the Department of Transportation. While halting rulemaking during a shutdown may not sound "glamorous," Buttigieg said, that function "includes the process of developing the rules that are going to get you refunds when the airlines cause a long delay."

The DOT has been working on new regulations that would make airlines issue refunds and foot the bill for things like hotels and meals in cases of delays or cancellations.

"That's something that I think Republican and Democratic and Independent air passengers mostly agree is a good idea, but the hardworking people in this department who actually are producing that tool to hold airlines accountable are going to be furloughed," Buttigieg said.

Even without a shutdown, Republicans' proposals to keep the government funded while enacting widespread cuts could jeopardize travel, according to Buttigieg.

"The shutdown is a hostage situation that some House Republicans have used in order to try to get budget cuts," he said.

The proposed cuts would set back Federal Aviation Administration modernization, and imperil rail safety inspections. The FAA saw a major essential system outage in January, leading to all flights in the country getting temporarily grounded. Further cuts could undermine the funding needed for technological improvements.

Right now, though, progress on averting any sort of shutdown seems stalled. Republicans can't agree on how to move forward, and time is running out.

"The American public deserves better. This is really basic stuff," Buttigieg said. "Keeping the government up and running, funding the government, is one of the basic functions of Congress and they can do it well, they can do it poorly, but to not do it at all is just totally avoidable and totally uncalled for."