A Southwest jet at LaGuardia airport in New York on Jan. 25. The airport experienced delays related to the shutdown.

A Southwest jet at LaGuardia airport in New York on Jan. 25. The airport experienced delays related to the shutdown. Julio Cortez/AP

Air Traffic Controllers Warn Against Another Shutdown

Union chief says system damage over the past five weeks is not fully known.

The nation’s air traffic control system “is less safe than it was on Dec. 21,” the president of the major air traffic controllers union warned on Tuesday.

“The system is on the verge of unraveling, and we sounded the bell,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told a luncheon gathering of the Aero Club of Washington, D.C.

He blasted Congress and the White House for a “political tug-of-war” that brought about the five-week partial government shutdown and set back the long-term agenda of the aviation industry and related agencies.

Though airlines, passengers and private aircraft were able to continue most travel during the funding lapse that began Dec. 22, “This shutdown cut government employees deep and the aviation industry deep, and we’re just starting to stitch it back up,” Rinaldi said.

“We’re not sure what the damage really is,” he acknowledged. “What we know is that a lot came to work but are demoralized.” Many “lost time, lost energy, lost people, and a lot lost heart.”

He described controllers as “fatigued, traumatized” and undervalued due to the skipped paychecks, reporting that they were “worried about mortgages, food and the shutdown because we inserted all these distractions and thoughts in their heads while they’re working airplanes.”

Systemwide, what has suffered, Rinaldi said, are the industry’s long-term efforts to modernize and grow. The “freight train” that ground to a stop in December meant the suspension of training, airport construction, collection of runway data, safety rulemaking, certification and equipment installation.

The FAA “stopped addressing risk” because the office that receives voluntary reporting of air tower mistakes was on furlough, said Rinaldi, who spent 16 years working in the control tower at Washington Dulles Airport.

He also cited the now-familiar litany of estimated costs of the recent shutdown—$11 billion in lost productivity in the fourth quarter, agencies paying out $90 million a day—“for people to stay home.”

Both the union’s executive board and members, as early as last September, began preparing for the coming uncertainty, Rinaldi said. “If you don’t prepare a game plan, you work every minute round the clock on how to get out of this mess.”

Now they have to go “methodically, program by program, employee by employee, to put things back together,” he said. Controllers, meanwhile, are increasingly threatening retirement (particularly those assigned to high-cost-of-living areas) after having to make painful choices between “their health and their finances.” Some who weren’t collecting paychecks began moonlighting for Lyft and Uber, or waiting on tables and running up credit cards “to take care of their families,” Rinaldi said.

Some 20 percent of the 14,000 controllers are retirement-eligible, he said, and if those 20 percent go, Rinaldi said, “we won’t be able to run the volume of traffic we can now.”

He scoffed at the idea that the situation wasn’t all that dire because federal employees who missed paychecks will eventually be paid. He called that thinking “Crap.” Those employees, through no fault of their own, were “being held hostage by the president and the U.S. Congress,” who, he added, “did not have their finest moment.”

By contrast, Rinaldi lavished praise on FAA leaders, citing “outstanding leadership” by acting Administrator Dan Elwell and Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the agency’s Air Traffic Organization. He had the same compliments for Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who handled the issues despite “the awkwardness” of being the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a key player in the funding stalemate.

Saying he is often asked for his opinion on President Trump’s plan for a southern border wall, Rinaldi declared that he is “not an expert on immigration, healthcare, gun control or Planned Parenthood—all issues that have prompted shutdowns. But we can’t continue to hold employees hostage to issues that are just not germane to aviation.”

He ended with a video, which included scenes from the shutdown, advocating stable funding for air traffic control. The soundtrack was the 1981 classic rock song “Under Pressure.”