Long shutdown could damage travel industry
America’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, is a blur of activity on the best of days. But an extra layer of anxiety gripped the airport Friday, the eve of a three-day holiday weekend. The partial government shutdown – the longest ever – has thinned the ranks of federal workers who staff airport security lines. And some travelers had braced for the worst.
The scene at most of the nation’s airports has so far been marked more by concerned passengers showing up early than by missed flights. Longer lines are evident. But delays resulting from a rise in federal security screeners calling in sick have been slight.
Yet concern is quickly growing. President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress remain far apart over Trump’s insistence on funding for a wall along the Mexican border as the price of reopening the government. With the two sides trading taunts and avoiding talks, travel industry analysts and economists have been calculating the potential damage should the shutdown drag into February or beyond.
Airlines and hotels would suffer. So would parks and restaurants that cater to travelers. And, eventually, the broader U.S. economy, already absorbing a trade war with China and a global economic slowdown, would endure another blow.
The travel and tourism industries generate about $1.6 trillion in U.S. economic activity – one-twelfth of the economy – and one in 20 jobs, according to the Commerce Department. Macroeconomic Advisers says it now expects the economy to expand at just a 1.4 percent annual rate in the first three months of this year, down from its previous forecast of 1.6 percent, because of reduced government spending during the shutdown.
America’s air-travel system will face its sternest this weekend, which coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, a federal holiday. The Transportation Security Administration predicts it will screen over 8 million passengers between Friday and Monday, up 10.8 percent from last year’s MLK weekend. And it will do so with fewer screeners. On Thursday, the TSA said 6.4 percent of screeners missed work – nearly double the 3.8 percent rate on the same day in 2018.
A TSA spokesman said the agency was offering overtime to screeners for this weekend, though those workers wouldn’t be paid – for their regular pay or for overtime – until the shutdown eventually ends.
On top of potentially longer airport security lines this weekend, a blast of winter weather could snarl travel this weekend in the Midwest and Northeast.
Airlines fear if the shutdown doesn’t end soon, more TSA agents will call in sick or quit.
Consumers are taking a dimmer view of the economy, in part because of the shutdown. If Americans were to cut back on travel and other discretionary spending, it would weaken consumer spending, the U.S. company’s primary fuel.
Hotels are starting to feel the impact, particularly in the Washington, D.C., region but fot now, though, the most visible impact has been at airports.
And, of course, federal employees going without pay – there are about 800,000 of them, including 420,000 who are still working – are already suffering.
“We still have to make sure our kids eat, make sure to have a roof over their head,” said Shalique Caraballo, whose wife is a TSA worker in Atlanta. “We sweat in private and don’t let the kids see the struggle.”