HOW THE SHUTDOWN AFFECTS TRAVELERS
By Joe Brancatelli
October 2, 2013 --I'm not a politician and I don't play a pundit on TV, so I have no idea if the federal government will be open or closed when you read this.
But I know one thing: The fourth quarter of 2013 will be dicey for business travel because the current crisis is likely to merge with the debt-ceiling fight later this month and then we get to do it all over again.
We rarely think about it, our lives on the road are heavily dependent on government bureaucracies and functionaries who grease the literal and metaphorical wheels of travel. The federal government runs the nation's airspace, inspects the nation's commercial aircraft, employs the TSA agents who inspect us and our bags before we can fly, checks our paperwork and luggage when we return from overseas and produces the paperwork that ensures that we can leave the country in the first place. And the federal government oversees the national parks that offer us physical and emotional succor after long weeks of stressful business travel.
So what will be opened and what will be closed when the government "shuts down" for hours or days in the next few months? How will business travel be affected?
To be honest, no one really knows. I direct your attention to the yeoman efforts of CNN, which has compiled an admirable chart about the shutdown's impact. The problem is that it is often wrong when it comes to travel. Worse, at least as of Tuesday morning, government agencies hadn't posted closing information on their respective websites. Worst of all, however, if the government slides into technical default later this month, no one on the planet fully understands or can predict how that will affect non-governmental matters as basic as exchange rates for the U.S. dollar against other currencies.
Given all those caveats or warnings, here's my best shot at assessing how our lives on the road could change in the weeks and months ahead.
Airports: The nation's commercial airports are operated by local governments and authorities, so they will remain open. However, airports do rely on extensive federal funding, so long periods of federal government shutdowns may force some juggling on the part of airport operators.
Air-traffic control: The nation's air-traffic controllers are federal employees and deemed "essential." That means they'll keep working and directing aircraft in and around the country's air space. So flights will take off and land, but don't expect completely normal operations. During government shutdowns, pay checks for air-traffic controllers will be delayed and that's sure to lead to increased absenteeism. That could eventually delay flights.
Air-travel security: Even if you don't like the Transportation Security Administration, you probably wouldn't want to fly if the TSA shut down and allowed anyone and everyone to board planes without screening. So TSA screeners are deemed "essential" and will keep working. Besides, our user fees ostensibly pay their salaries. But if shutdowns drag on, expect security lines to grow.
Airline safety: The Federal Aviation Administration, which overseas the inspection of the nation's commercial aircraft, says it'll be business-as-usual during any government shutdowns. But that doesn't square with the furlough notices issued this week to 3,000 inspectors. Without putting too fine a point on it, aviation inspectors off the job worries me. I'd like to think the FAA will act rationally and keep the inspectors working.
Customs and immigration: The folks who stamp our passports and check our luggage when we return from overseas will keep working during a shutdown. But processing times are already longer since the government sequestration went into effect earlier this year. Any long shutdowns will surely make the situation worse.
Amtrak: The nation's passenger railroad system is operated by the federal government and relies on subsidies. But Amtrak should have enough revenue from passenger fares to survive brief government shutdowns. However, any extended closure might lead Amtrak to curtail long-haul trains, the largest money sucks. Expect short-haul service in the Baltimore-Washington Corridor to be the last to be affected.
Passports and visas: The State Department handles passports and it says the process will continue. However, many passport offices in federal buildings will be closed, so try a post office. Many accept passport applications and they will remain open during shutdowns. But I'm skeptical of State's claims. During the government closures of 1995 and 1996 as many as 200,000 passport applications went unprocessed. If you must do passport business in the next few weeks, consider using an expediter, private services that specialize in fast processing.
Changes to in-flight rules: Just before Tuesday's shutdown, the Federal Aviation Administration received a report from an advisory panel that suggested loosening restrictions on in-flight electronic devices. The FAA was expected to act quickly on the report, but extended government shutdowns will surely delay any changes to in-flight rules. Bring a good (non-electronic) book or a few magazines.
The merger lawsuit: The Justice Department's lawsuit to stop the merger of American Airlines and US Airways is scheduled to begin on Nov. 25. On Tuesday morning, citing the government shutdown, the Justice Department asked for a delay. U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said no. However, if the government is closed for extended periods, the court itself could be forced to shut down.
Value of the dollar: The free market for currency trading is technically exempt from shutdown-related activity. But traders soured on the dollar in recent weeks as the political process broke down. As of 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the euro had soared past $1.35, the dollar had dropped below the 100 yen mark and the greenback was losing ground against all major currencies. If the looming debt-limit battle leads to a default, the dollar will almost certainly plummet. That will increase the price we pay overseas for hotel rooms, restaurant meals, taxi rides and even a pack of gum.
National parks: The one immutable in this maelstrom is the national parks. Whenever the government shuts down, the parks will be closed. That includes hundreds of national monuments, forests, historic sites, battlefields and anything recreational run by the federal government. Even the panda cam at the National Zoo in Washington will be dark.
The takeaway? Listen to Margo Channing, the diva from All About Eve, who nailed it in an entirely different context: Fasten your seatbelts, she warned, it's going to be a bumpy night.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.