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Airlines' woes a prime example of the shutdown's wide-ranging economic impact

“If you really are losing 8 percent of your pilot force in a month, you’re not going to be able to operate very much longer than that," said one analyst.
Airline passengers
Passengers make their way to a security checkpoint inside Terminal A at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Jan. 15, 2019, in Houston. The partial government shutdown is starting to strain the national aviation system, with unpaid security screeners staying home, air-traffic controllers suing the government and safety inspectors off the job.David J. Phillip / AP

When it comes to air travel, it turns out that the only thing worse than bureaucracy is its absence: With rising sickout calls from TSA screeners and operation-critical inspections not being conducted, industry analysts say airlines are on a collision course with a catastrophe of Washington’s making.

Wall Street has already weighed in: Shares of American, Southwest, JetBlue, Delta and Alaska Airlines have all fallen by double-digit percentages over the past 12 months, in spite of lower fuel costs and high demand from both business and leisure travelers. The New York Stock Exchange’s Arca Airline Index, which tracks the sector, has plummeted by roughly 21 percent over the past year.

Delta Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian said during the company’s investor conference call on Tuesday that the airline is losing $25 million this month because fewer government contractors are taking business trips, although he said that the thornier issues are operational, such as not being able to get the paperwork to get newly purchased planes up and running.

“It’s reached a point where many things airlines rely on from their regulators they simply don’t have access to,” said former airline executive and industry analyst Robert W. Mann, such as getting approvals to start flying new planes and renew pilots’ licenses and medical clearances.

Beyond that is the ballooning customer wait times at security checkpoints. “The TSA issue is becoming a really serious problem for customers,” Mann said.

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Delta spokeswoman Elizabeth Wolf said the airline is suggesting that customers get to the airport two hours before domestic flights and three for international trips. “We are providing support to TSA by deploying Delta employees to assist in non-screening tasks such as managing security lines and answering customer questions,” she told NBC News. Representatives of United and American Airlines also said they were coordinating with the TSA and other relevant agencies to try to mitigate passenger disruption. A Southwest spokesman said the same and added that they were advising customers to get to the airport two hours in advance of domestic flights.

There are limits to what airlines can do, though. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the nation’s busiest and Delta’s main hub, advised Monday on Twitter that travelers should give themselves three hours to clear security. Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, a United hub, announced that it had shuttered one terminal’s ticketing and security operations, and advised passengers to arrive two hours in advance of domestic flights, three for international. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was the site of a news conference called by Illinois’s Congressional Democrats on Monday, at which NBC’s local affiliate reported lawmakers called for an end to the shutdown.

If a shrinking pool of TSA screeners — who are currently working without pay — causes hours-long delays in more airports, the fallout will hit both airlines and customers.

“If this drags on and TSA sickouts increase, if the lines to clear security and for international arrivals increase, they’re concerned that travelers will cancel or postpone trips,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group.

The loss of business travelers, who often travel on more expensive — but refundable — tickets are the biggest risk. “In talking to travel managers, when this happens, their employees lose productivity so there’s a ripple effect,” Harteveldt said.

“We are on the precipice of very real disruptions the longer this shutdown persists,” said Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “The more cushion business travelers have to give themselves in anticipation of major delays and cancellations, the less time they can spend getting their jobs done.”

“If you start to see waits routinely exceed two hours, you’re going to see at least business travelers start to cancel or postpone their trips,” Harteveldt predicted.

Although the prospect of dreary, wasted hours spent in security queues is the most visible pain point of how the shutdown is affecting the industry, Mann said the disruption of back-office operations poses the biggest long-term threat to airlines viability during the shutdown.

Airlines for America said there are several regulatory pressure points where the shutdown is impacting carriers, “specifically regarding certification of new aircraft and the implementation of new training programs for pilots, as well as training for air traffic controllers and other aviation employees,” the trade group said in a statement. On Friday, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association sued the federal government after its members missed their first paychecks of the year.

“At some point, you’re going to run out of the critical path resources that are required,” Mann said.

Pilots, who need to get their credentials renewed annually to be legally allowed to fly, are at the top of that list. Airlines face the prospect one out of every 12 pilots becoming ineligible to fly for every month the shutdown drags on, assuming renewal dates are spaced roughly throughout the calendar year, Mann said.

“If you really are losing 8 percent of your pilot force in a month, you’re not going to be able to operate very much longer than that. You wouldn’t be able to operate through the first quarter if you’re losing pilots at that rate,” he said.