As a government shutdown becomes increasingly inevitable this weekend, flyers may soon see longer security lines and passport wait times.
But the government shutdown is part of a larger thread in the issues afflicting U.S. travel — an industry that has generated trillions of dollars for the U.S. economy — Geoff Freeman, the president of the U.S. Travel Association, explained at the Skift Global Forum in New York City on Thursday.
“In our opinion, the federal government is utterly failing travel,” he said. “The message I think we’re getting from the federal government is, ‘We don’t really care about travel.’”
Freeman cited long wait times for passports, visas and Global Entry, along with security checkpoints — aspects of travel that would be exacerbated by an impending government shutdown, he said.
Congress has until midnight on Saturday to extend federal funding. However, with a fractured Republican caucus in the House of Representatives and the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., it is increasingly unlikely that Congress will reach an eleventh-hour consensus.
A government shutdown would have a ripple effect on travel and tourism in the U.S. Essential employees in the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration would have to show up to work unpaid, and most national parks and museums would shutter.
Freeman also cautioned that other countries, particularly those in the Middle East and Asia, are gaining a competitive advantage in tourism because of the investments these countries have made to grow the sector.
He advocated lowering the visa wait times for tourists from countries like India, Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, citing how Canada recently waived visa requirements for 13 countries in June.
“If you are a leisure traveler or a business traveler, you’re likely to say, ‘I’ll go somewhere else, go somewhere else for my business, I go somewhere else for a good time,” Freeman said. “And if that’s the case, I may never come to the U.S., I may find a connection with this other market. So it is doing real harm, these wait times.”
Wait times are estimated to cost the U.S. economy $12 billion, Freeman said. Travel contributed $1.2 trillion in direct spending to the U.S. economy in 2022, the USTA says, with an “economic footprint” of $2.6 trillion.
Aging infrastructure presents another issue for travel, the USTA president added. A government shutdown would put infrastructure projects like airport terminal construction on pause until Congress reaches a deal to extend federal funding. However, Freeman said the federal government still hasn’t made significant investments in improving infrastructure.
He pointed to the extensive renovations done at LaGuardia Airport (LGA), an airport that President Joe Biden once famously described as a “third-world country.”
“You go to a place like LaGuardia and you see how you can have a better experience,” he said in 2014.
Making matters worse, Freeman said, the FAA reauthorization is set to expire around the same time the government will most likely shut down. During the pandemic, the FAA has struggled with an air traffic controller shortage, leading to more delayed flights and flight cuts out of some of the country’s largest airports.
How air traffic controllers will respond to a government shutdown this year is unclear. During a 2019 government shutdown, 10 air traffic controllers called in sick; this resulted in a temporary shutdown at LaGuardia and major delays at airports in Newark and Philadelphia. The incident ultimately led to the end of the government shutdown, which had already become one of the longest government shutdowns in U.S. history.
“We’re very concerned about what is happening in Washington,” Freeman said. “I think it does speak to the dysfunction in Washington, and I think it’s incumbent on us to help people understand the consequences of their decisions.”