Virtually every segment of the aviation industry — from airlines to airports — is ramping up pressure on lawmakers and the White House to reopen the government, suggesting that a prolonged shutdown could seriously harm passengers and business.
Air traffic controllers and other aviation industry workers reinforced the point with a rally outside the Capitol on Thursday, saying safety suffers when air traffic controllers, baggage screeners and Federal Aviation Administration technicians and inspectors are either furloughed or forced to work without pay as the shutdown enters its third week.
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Beyond the obvious concern of having an air traffic controller distracted by worries about personal finances while performing a high-stress job, many are also concerned about falling behind on everything from aircraft inspections to training the next generation of air traffic controllers, since the FAA controller academy is shuttered.
Furloughs have also hit the accident investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board, blocking potential probes of one fatal small-plane crash and at least 11 other incidents.
“We are eroding the level of safety in the system as this continues on,” said Paul Rinaldi, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We don’t want to be in this tug of war.”
They were joined by several members of Congress, including two Republicans — Reps. Pete King of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — who said they would vote with Democrats to reopen the government Thursday.
Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who chairs the House’s transportation spending panel, noted that the rally brought together general aviation, commercial airlines, the drone industry, air traffic controllers, safety specialists, flight attendants and others.
“You know sometimes you don’t agree on everything, but you sure do agree on this,” Price said.
Air traffic controllers, who are working through the shutdown, won’t be getting a paycheck for their last two weeks of work, their union confirmed. Pay stubs reading a net pay of zero dollars were distributed Thursday, including one for a controller at a major air traffic control hub outside of Washington, D.C. shared with POLITICO.
“Those pay stubs with zero net dollars are absolutely abhorrent and un-American,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said at the rally.
Beyond controllers, other safety-critical parts of the aviation workforce are also working without pay, such as the technicians who maintain FAA equipment and TSA’s cadre of baggage screeners. According to their union, some baggage screeners have already begun to quit as financial pressures stack up.
On Thursday morning, shortly before the rally was going to start, trade groups for airlines, airports, plane owners, business aviation interests and more released a letter asking for lawmakers to find a way to reopen the government quickly.
“This partial shutdown has already inflicted real damage to our nation’s aviation system and the impacts will only worsen over time,” the three-page letter to Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reads.
In a tweet, the FAA said it is “allocating resources based on risk assessment to meet all safety critical functions,” and if it identifies an issue, it calls inspectors and engineers off furlough to handle it.
The shutdown has also stymied efforts to certify airplanes as safe to fly, the groups said. Additionally, “non-routine” aircraft registrations can’t be handled. “The continued shutdown of certification functions will delay commercial and general aviation aircraft deliveries and exports,” the letter reads.
Pete Bunce, the president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, said at the rally that if the shutdown drags on for another week, it will cost industry billions of dollars.
In addition, the FAA’s safety inspectors have also been furloughed, which means the airline industry is largely policing itself. For the most part, the FAA’s airline oversight program is built on self-reporting, but typically FAA inspectors oversee that work.
“Every day that goes by that the government is shut down, safety is gonna be compromised,” Mike Perrone, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, said at the rally.
Of course, during other shutdowns, air traffic controllers also worked without pay and the U.S. aviation system remained safe. And so far, anyway, TSA insists screeners calling out sick or quitting are minimal and in any case have not greatly affected wait times at major airports.
But Rinaldi said that if the shutdown continues months or years as Trump has said is possible, controllers “are going to go get other jobs.” The shutdown will also exacerbate long term staffing problems and delay projects including the implementation of a new communications technology for the nation’s air traffic control system.
Rinaldi said “we can’t even implement new procedures to accommodate the increase of over 1,000 aircraft wanting to go to Atlanta” for the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.
Concerns that TSA screeners might walk off the job have reached a fever pitch since CNN first reported last Friday that hundreds of agents had been calling out sick since the shutdown began. The American Federation of Government Employees this week said that some screeners had resigned, and others were likely to follow once they missed their first paycheck.
AFGE said Thursday that it had updated its ongoing lawsuit challenging the shutdown to include allegations that the government was violating labor laws by forcing federal workers to remain at their posts without pay.
TSA has mostly downplayed the situation, saying that reports of an uptick in sick-out calls were “unofficial and anecdotal.” But agency spokesperson Michael Bilello also acknowledged that the rate of unscheduled absences had risen. “The 4 percent average over the furlough period compared to the same time last year is an 11 percent increase,” he told POLITICO. He said airport security had not been affected by the absences, so far, and average wait times remained “well within TSA standards.”
Still, airports are preparing for the possibility that security lanes will soon be short-staffed, said Chris Bidwell, senior vice president of security at Airports Council International-North America. He said some airports were developing contingency plans that might include boosting checkpoint staffing with their own employees, who could help manage the lanes. However, airport employees can’t screen travelers or bags.
There have been varying reports of callout impacts at airports across the country, with some outlets reporting longer lines at some major airports. Reagan National and Dulles International — the two airports serving the D.C. area and Congress — have not yet seen any negative impacts, according to a spokesperson from the agency that operates them.
“Airport officials will continue to be in close contact with TSA, CBP and FAA throughout the shutdown,” he added.