As the U.S. government shutdown turned three weeks old, the
odds of tangible and lasting effects on the travel community -- disrupted trips
or, even worse, security risks -- are getting higher.
In the initial weeks, the impact on corporate travel was
more on the level of a "hassle," such as reported longer lines at
some security checkpoints, said Bruce McIndoe, founder and president of global
travel risk management firm WorldAware (formerly iJet).
If the shutdown persists for a few more weeks, however,
there is "an increasing threat to the system" as Transportation
Security Administration personnel, air traffic controllers, inspectors and
other critical members of the aviation industry don't receive paychecks, he
said. "You'll have individuals peel off and look for other opportunities
for income, and you'll start having holes," McIndoe said. "People will
be pushed to work overtime, which creates more stress. In the unlikely event
that this thing moves into months, then you just had a rapidly escalating risk
of a catastrophic failure in the system."
Air traffic control, understaffed before the shutdown began,
soon could reach the point at which the government will need to reduce flight
volumes, which will force carriers to cancel some flights, McIndoe said. An
extended shutdown could lead to entire airports being shut down, with only a "subset
of the airports" running, he said.
As of Thursday, TSA was still reporting that most employees
are showing up for work. The 5.1% unscheduled-absence rate compared with 3.3% a
year earlier, according to assistant administrator for public affairs Michael
Bilello. More than 95% of passengers spent less than 15 minutes in line, he
said. Should that absence rate go up, however, it could especially cripple
smaller airports, McIndoe said. "If they don't have enough staff to staff
a security lane, they won't turn it on," he said. "If they got to the
point where they couldn't open a lane at all, what would they do? There are
only three or four lanes in smaller airports, so they would have to shut down."
The more prolonged the shutdown, the longer it will take to
recover, as well, particularly if ATC workers opt for other jobs or early
retirement. "You don't just hire somebody and throw them in a seat and
say, 'Be an air traffic controller,'" McIndoe said. "It takes month
and months before people are trained and able to sit on those seats, so there's
lingering damage to the system."
Outside of that, the shutdown has halted federal inspections
of aircraft, which will build up as the shutdown persists, he said. In
addition, investigators from the National Transportation Security Board have
been sidelined from some active investigations, said Larry Willis, president of
the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department.
The shutdown also has stalled modernization efforts of the
air traffic control system, he said. "The modernization efforts the FAA
has put forward require constant and ongoing work, and this really takes those
efforts off course," Willis said. "When you put critical
modernization efforts on the shelf for three weeks, it's going to take months
to ramp those efforts back up."
While there's not much travel buyers can do beyond
pressuring their elected officials to end the shutdown, they should caution
their travelers to allow more time to get through airports in case of
disruptions, McIndoe said. Should it reach the point of flight cancellations,
corporate travelers might look to defer trips when possible. However, he said
putting travelers in cars instead of planes is not ideal, given the
substantially higher risk of accidents in car travel versus air travel.
The shutdown's impact on the travel industry as a whole will
grow, as well. The federal government shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996
lasted 21 days, a record until the current shutdown. It led to millions of
dollars in losses for airlines and other tourism sectors, and about 200,000
applications for passports were not processed during that period, according to
a 2010 Congressional Research Service report.
Source: Business Travel News