Air traffic controllers' union issues dire safety warning over shutdown

  24 January 2019    Read: 1136
Air traffic controllers

Union leaders representing air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants issued an urgent warning on Wednesday that the month-long government shutdown was threatening the safety and security of the nation’s air travel system.

“We cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break,” the union leaders wrote. “It is unprecedented.”

In the joint statement, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association president, Paul Rinaldi, the Air Line Pilots Association president, Joe DePete, and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president, Sara Nelson, described a “growing concern for the safety and security of our members, our airlines, and the traveling public due to the government shutdown”.

They said staffing at air traffic control facilities was at a “30-year low” as the rate of employee callouts continued to rise. To compensate for the staffing shortages, the union leaders said controllers were working overtime, including 10-hour shifts, six days a week.

The Federal Aviation Administration has frozen hiring as a result of the shutdown, meaning they are unable to fill staffing requirements, the statement says. It warns that 20% of current controllers are eligible to retire, and if they did because they are no longer able to financially support their families without a paycheck, “the National Airspace System (NAS) will be crippled”.

“As union leaders, we find it unconscionable that aviation professionals are being asked to work without pay and in an air safety environment that is deteriorating by the day,” the statement said. “To avoid disruption to our aviation system, we urge Congress and the White House to take all necessary steps to end this shutdown immediately.”

The shutdown has strained the entirety of the air travel system. As many as 50,000 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers are among the 420,000 federal employees working without pay as the shutdown reaches a 33rd day over Donald Trump’s insistence that Congress fund a wall along the south-west border. According to the TSA, the rate of unscheduled absences was 7.4% on Tuesday, compared with a 3.2% rate on the same weekday one year ago.

With reduced staffing, some airports have had to close security checkpoints or appeal for additional screeners to help with the long lines at checkpoints. Meanwhile, airlines are reporting tens of millions in lost revenue.

The partial shutdown, which began on 22 December, is the longest in American history.

The Senate will vote on Thursday on two proposals that would re-open the shuttered agencies, but neither is expected to pass.


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