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Airlines Prepare for U.S. Government Shutdown that Could Snarl Flights, Delay Upgrades

Edward Russell
September 29th, 2023 at 2:47 PM EDT

Denver Airport control tower

Airlines are bracing for the increasing likelihood that the U.S. government will shutdown at a minute past midnight Sunday morning.

Flights will continue to operate and the financial impact on air carriers is likely to be minimal, if past shutdowns offer any indication. Air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport security screeners will continue to work, albeit neither will be paid for the duration of a shutdown.

“Our people are pros,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday. “But they’re also human beings, and the pressure they’re under grows and mounts each coming day under this scenario.”

Funding for the U.S. government is set to expire at midnight Saturday, which means that at 12:01 a.m. Sunday tens-of-thousands of government workers will be furloughed. The most visible aspect of the shutdown to the general public will be shuttered national parks and museums around the country, including the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Essential staff, including air traffic controllers and TSA agents, would continue to work if Congress does not act but the longer term fallout from a shutdown could be severe.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would send home the more than 1,000 air traffic controllers that are in the multi-year training process as the agency attempts to staff up after a Covid-induced shortage. The FAA faces a roughly 3,000-person controller shortage. And needed upgrades to the systems managing flights, including the Notice to Air Missions System (NOTAM), would halt. A NOTAM outage grounded U.S. flights for more than an hour in January for the first time since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Buttigieg warned that, while the FAA has met its target to hire 1,500 new controllers this year, a shutdown could mean that it misses its goal of hiring 1,800 new controllers next year.

In addition to jeopardizing the FAA’s efforts to hire and train new air traffic controllers and upgrade systems, a shutdown would also halt work on new passenger-rights regulations, including delay compensation, family seating, and wheelchair-accessible lavatory rules.

And grants to airports, which fund important terminal, runway and other upgrades across the country, would also stop. A spokesperson for Denver International Airport, the third busiest in the country, said a shutdown could delay the opening of the airport’s new west security checkpoint that’s slated to come online early next year.

“There is no good time for a government shutdown but this is a particularly bad time for a government shutdown, especially when it comes for transportation,” Buttigieg said. “The consequences would be disruptive and dangerous.”

The FAA faces something of a double-whammy come Sunday. In addition to a government closure, its five-year funding bill also expires at midnight Saturday. Without a new funding bill, or an extension to its existing one — known as a continuing resolution — the agency could lose more than $50 million a day in uncollected taxes and fees on flights. Buttigieg described some of that revenue as “unrecoverable.”

The House passed a five-year reauthorization of the FAA’s funding in July. However, the Senate has yet to take up the bill in a dispute over raising the retirement age for airline pilots by two years to 67. Senators also continue to debate a controversial proposal that would create new simulator training credits for new airline pilots to ease the 1,500 hour training requirement. And a proposal to add more long-distance flights at Washington’s Reagan National airport was cut from the House bill but remains in the Senate draft.

“The problem is, when you stop [FAA operations], you can’t just flip a switch to turn it all back on,” said Paul Rinaldi, an aviation-industry consultant and the former president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “It takes a while to ramp it back up.”

Rinaldi led the union during the last government shutdown that lasted 35 days from December 2018 through January 2019. Controllers worked without pay during that shutdown as well, which ended shortly after staffing shortages in the New York-area resulted in flight delays and cancellations at New York’s LaGuardia airport.

Asked if he believed there will be a shutdown this weekend, Rinaldi said: “I think we’re definitely going to see a shutdown. It’s a guarantee, we just don’t know how long it will go.”

“Our expectation is that a shutdown will happen,” U.S. Travel CEO Geoff Freeman said at the Skift Global Forum on Thursday.

U.S. Travel joined Airlines for America (A4A), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others on Tuesday wrote an open letter to Congress calling on legislators to pass a FAA funding bill by Sunday.

“The FAA is vital to the U.S. traveling public and business community,” they wrote. “The civil aviation sector is responsible for approximately 5% of U.S. GDP and over 10 million jobs. Any interruption of the FAA’s programs – even a few hours or days – would undermine public confidence and interrupt progress on critical initiatives to advance safety, efficiency, innovation, and airport infrastructure.”

And in terms of unintended consequences, the shutdown could delay the trial in the Justice Department’s suit to block the proposed JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines merger. The case is scheduled to go to court in Boston on October 16.

Edward Russell
September 29th, 2023 at 2:47 PM EDT

Tags: North America

Photo credit: Denver Airport control tower Denver International Airport

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