Federal air traffic controllers have warned that the government shutdown is going to make travel delays worse given its dwindling workforce, which has already suffered from record low employment rates in recent years.
With the federal closure well into its fourth week, officials with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) say that dysfunction in Washington is causing undue stress for their members who already have precious little room for error in their jobs.
Without money coming in, air traffic controllers who have been required to come to work and oversee the delicate dance between planes as they take off, land, and taxi at high speeds must now also worry about whether they have money to pay for their mortgages and child care payments.
“Morale is at an all time low, and stress is at an all time high,” Joel Ortiz, the regional vice president for Natca’s Western Pacific Region, told The Independent about the “essential” controllers called in to work without pay.
He continued: “The holidays just ended. That first pay cheque, what I’ve heard is that most were able to make some adjustments to endure that one, but the next one is really going to start getting people applying for small loans, getting lines of credit, and going into debt if they want to continue to have their jobs.”
Airport workers and air traffic controllers all over the country are feeling similar financial and professional squeezes – with approvals for new technology also on hold as Donald Trump and congressional Democrats spar over the president’s request for $5.7bn (£4.4bn) in funds to build a border wall.
At Logan International Airport in Boston, a planned rollout of a monitoring system has been delayed even as air traffic controllers have warned the potential dangers without the new system. In the Oklahoma City academy – the only school to train air traffic controllers in the nation – students have been told to go home and hope to sign back up for classes in six months to a year. In Atlanta, the airport has seen soaring rates of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers staying at home.
And in Alaska, air traffic controllers who have just spent a significant amount of cash on repairs to their homes following a major earthquake there in November are being told they may not get a pay cheque for quite some time.
“A lot of people had spent a lot of money to fix their homes, and then rolled right into the holidays. So the people here don’t have the savings that would normally be there,” Clint Lancaster, the Alaska vice president for Natca, said.
“Everybody’s staying safe. We’re keeping the flying public safe. But the system we rely on to help us do our jobs is slowly eroding away underneath us,” he said. “How long can it maintain the same efficiency? I don’t know.”
The biggest long-term concern may be that Oklahoma academy could see its graduating ranks slowed down for months if not years to come, with classes not in session over the shutdown.
Officials say that the staffing situation for the agency had already been close to perilous following the most recent government shutdown of note in 2013, when sequester measures resulted in a year-long gap in training for new employees, even as those eligible for retirement continued to mount.
Every year since, there has been record low rates of employment, and 2019 is set to be the worst. Some 18 per cent of employees could in theory get up and retire tomorrow.
“We’re at a 30-year low. We’re about 80 per cent staffed at what we should be nationwide,” Mick Devine, the regional vice president for Natca’s New England region, said. “Eighteen per cent of our workforce can retire today. If [the shutdown] goes much longer, they will start to leave”.
Officials say that the low employment rates are unlikely to translate into dangers for American travellers – though the added risk of human error from financial stress is harder to predict – but that the long-term impact of the shutdown is likely to mean fewer workers and lower capacity.
That means more delays, and less capacity to even schedule flights going forward. Even in the short term, the lack of pay cheques has forced some workers to find second jobs, and could jeopardise work attendance.
“It’s a major impact, especially on home life. People have bills. People have car payments. Certainly they had mortgages and rents, and any kid expenses,” Rich Santa, the Natca vice president for the eastern region of the country, said. “This hits hard. It’s not like there is any subsidies. It’s a zero balance pay cheque.”