Unions that represent U.S. air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants sent out an alarming joint statement on Wednesday warning that the ongoing federal government shutdown—at 33 days, the longest in history—has caused a situation in which they “cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play” and is “unconscionable.”
“We have a growing concern for the safety and security of our members, our airlines and the traveling public due to the government shutdown,” the presidents of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), and Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) wrote. “This is already the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States and there is no end in sight. In our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented.”
The unions wrote that air traffic controllers, security and law enforcement personnel, safety inspectors, FBI agents, and “many other critical workers” have been working for over 30 days without pay at a time when air traffic control staffing is already at a 30-year low. They added that controllers can only “maintain the system’s efficiency and capacity” by working unpaid overtime, sometimes involving 10-hour days and six-day workweeks, and that the shutdown of Federal Aviation Administration training facilities will create a backlog in new hires.
With 20 percent of fully certified controllers eligible to retire, they added, many may choose to leave their jobs and leave the National Airspace System “crippled.” But there is short-term danger as well, they warned:
The situation is changing at a rapid pace. Major airports are already seeing security checkpoint closures, with many more potentially to follow... Last Saturday, TSA management announced that a growing number of officers cannot come to work due to the financial toll of the shutdown. In addition, we are not confident that system-wide analyses of safety reporting data, which is used to identify and implement corrective actions in order to reduce risks and prevent accidents is 100 percent operational due to reduced FAA resources.
The “air safety environment” is “deteriorating by the day,” the unions concluded, asking Congress and the White House to “take all necessary steps to end this shutdown immediately.”
According to the New York Times, as many as one out of ten transportation security officers have not showed up to work at times, and airlines “are losing more than $100 million a month in revenue” as travelers have become concerned about wait times and safety. Earlier this month, the Washington Post wrote that 24,000 FAA employees deemed vital for “life and safety” were working without pay, while another 17,000 had been furloughed.
New York Magazine wrote that the president of the AFA, Sara Nelson, called for a “general strike” by labor unions—though stopped short of calling for one specifically by aviation workers.
There’s some history there: In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,500 of nearly 13,000 striking air traffic controllers, citing a 1978 law prohibiting federal labor strikes. According to ABC News, for many personnel the incident is “seared into their memories,” and striking federal workers “could face prosecution and even jail time.”
However, NATCA-Fort Worth Center president Nick Daniels told ABC News that air traffic controllers “take great pride in that weight that they carry on their shoulders for that job” and would be reluctant to have the U.S. public “pay for this government shut down.”
Some reports on Wednesday suggested that Donald Trump’s administration is prepared to let the shutdown—which, again, is about the president’s demand that Congress authorize $5.7 billion for his ridiculous border wall or some kind of face-saving wall-like object—extend into March or even April. That could result in catastrophic effects on everything from food stamp availability and federal courts to failure to pay government leases.
As New York Magazine noted, Washington Post journalist Robert Costa recently tweeted that a couple of “senior Republican lawmakers” had told him “the only way this breaks open is if TSA employees stay home and Americans get furious about their flights.”