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Travel and the Partial Government Shutdown: What You Need to Know Now

As Published by Paul Metselaar in Inc.

The partial government shutdown that began on December 22 has passed the previous record of 21 days to become the longest government closure in U.S. history. The partial shutdown is now well into its fourth week, and roughly 800,000 federal workers, approximately half of whom have been furloughed and half of whom have been deemed essential and are called to work, have now missed a paycheck.

In my industry, travel, roughly 51,000 TSA officers and 10,000 air traffic controllers that work for the FAA are part of the approximately 400,000 federal employees who have been deemed essential and called to work. These are people who are facing prolonged work without pay, and the TSA union has reported everything from low morale to those who are quitting or considering it because of financial hardship. Related to that, the TSA is seeing over twice the number of “call outs” (for example, workers calling in sick) as last year. We’re also seeing airport terminal closures, questions of safety and the emergence of potentially long term travel industry problems.

As CEO of Ovation Travel Group, a $1.3 billion travel company, we’ve been getting questions, listening to concerns and even seeing travel plans change as a result of the partial government shutdown. This is what you need to know about travel and the partial government shutdown today:

Wait Times. On January 15th, the TSA issued its first national press release since the beginning of the partial shutdown, focusing on checkpoint operations. They noted, “Nationwide, TSA screened 1.89 million passengers yesterday (Monday, Jan. 14). Overall, 99.1 percent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes; 94.3 percent of passengers less than 15 minutes. In TSA PreCheck lanes, passengers on average waited less than 10 minutes.” While those are encouraging numbers, a chart outlining maximum wait times at the top 42 U.S. airports shows how much discrepancy exists: airports in St. Louis and Maui tied for the shortest times at 9 minutes in standard lanes and 4 minutes in PreCheck lanes, but Atlanta’s airport came in at a whopping 88 minutes in standard lanes and 55 minutes in PreCheck lanes. In short, some airports are still a breeze to get through, while others have not been.

Airport Terminal Closures. This past weekend, terminals at both Washington Dulles and Miami airports were closed in order to “optimize resources without degrading screening and security effectiveness, where it is feasible.” While operations have since returned to normal at those two airports, Houston’s George Bush and Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson airports are currently “exercising contingency plans to uphold aviation security standards.” Bush Airport has announced that their contingency plan, complete with terminal closures and rerouted security, will last at least through January 17th, while Atlanta is still cautioning passengers to arrive 3 hours before domestic flights, even though wait times have decreased since the 14th.

Passports and Trusted Traveler Programs. One big question we’ve been getting at Ovation is whether it’s currently possible to get a passport and whether it’s possible to enroll in Trusted Travel Programs such as TSA PreCheck, Global Entry and CLEAR (for an overview of these programs, click here)

Passports. The U.S. Department of State has said they are currently offering passport services, with directions posted here.

TSA PreCheckYou can still apply to and renew membership in the TSA Precheck program.

Global EntryUnfortunately, Global Entry processing has been halted during the partial government shutdown. As announced via Twitter, “Global Entry is managed by Customs and Border Protection. New applications will be processed after the government resumes operations.” Also included is a link to submit questions and concerns.

CLEAR. You can still apply and renew membership in the CLEAR program.

Safety. The TSA has repeatedly stressed that “screening and security are never compromised” and that they are working closely with both “airport authorities and airlines to ensure resources are optimized” and “efforts to consolidate operations are actively managed.” Further, on January 15th, the FAA announced it would bring back roughly 2,200 safety inspectors that were on furlough, and that they were expected to be back on the job by the end of this week.

However, there is an increasing focus on what happens if the shutdown continues. Larry Willis, president of the AFL CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, stated recently, “The modernization efforts the FAA has put forward require constant and ongoing work, and this really takes those efforts off course … When you put critical modernization efforts on the shelf for three weeks, it’s going to take months to ramp those efforts back up.”

Industry Business Losses. In an airline first, Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian reported the partial government shutdown will cost the airline $25 million in revenue this month and also said he expects Delta will push back the initial January 31st launch date of its new Airbus A220 jets, as safety inspectors are currently furloughed. Similarly, Southwest Airlines had planned to launch flights to Hawaii in late 2018, but final certifications are on hold, as the groups that oversee needed authorizations are furloughed.

At Ovation, we’re seeing some changes on a micro level. For example, we have had multiple clients cancel business trips within Washington, DC, because their respective clients’ offices were closed due to the shutdown. We’ve also had several clients switch their mode of travel from flights to Amtrak trains due to concerns about TSA wait times and possible airport delays – a possible echo of Bastian’s statement and an example of a ripple effect.

If you are traveling now. It is important to have the most up to date information possible. With regard to terminal closures, which can change daily, the TSA is advising travelers to “seek current airline and airport information before arriving at the airport.” The official Twitter feeds of airlines, airports and the TSA are particularly helpful for the most current advice.

For wait times, in addition to the above, mobile apps like MiFlight and Fleet not only provide crowd sourced information on wait times, but also include information on airports such as terminal maps and reviews on restaurants and shops.

At Ovation, many of our clients have experienced no delays in travel, but there are also some who have not been as lucky; in fact, one of our own Road Warriors was in Atlanta on the above noted day of record high wait times. We’ve also had multiple clients request private greeter services with the hope of an expedited check in process. The bottom line is to constantly monitor airport and flight status and to allow extra time.

This partial shutdown is putting a huge financial burden on thousands of working people and their families with unknown long term damage. As a business owner and an American citizen, I think it’s disgraceful that this has gone on so long, and that it’s done so at the expense of hard working people. It’s time for the President and Congress to get in a room for as long as it takes in order to negotiate a comprehensive immigration deal so we can all get back to work. Whatever happened to the “shining city on the hill?”

On a positive note, there have been many acts of kindness showing up in the news. Many restaurants are offering free or discounted food to federal workers, and local communities are holding donation drives and organizing pop up food banks to help out. And at airports, people of all ages have offered TSA agents words of encouragement and letters of thanks.

While most news headlines these days focus on ongoing government strife, it’s heartwarming to see how communities are coming together to help one another.

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