"We cannot even calculate the level of risk" during the shutdown, airline workers say

Air traffic controllers, flight attendants, and pilots are saying that critical resources and security measures are strained.
Air traffic controllers, flight attendants, and pilots are saying that critical resources and security measures are strained.

There’s little room for error when it comes to protecting the 2.6 million airline passengers that zip across the sky each day. But five weeks into the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, and pilots are saying that critical resources and security measures are strained.

“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 National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Air Line Pilots Association, and Association of Flight Attendants said in a joint statement Wednesday. “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 Federal Aviation Administration, which is impacted by the partial government shutdown, employs nearly 14,000 air traffic controllers, many of whom have been deemed essential and have showed up to work without pay. Even before President Donald Trump failed to sign a spending bill that didn’t include $5.7 billion for his border wall on Dec. 22, staffing in air-traffic control facilities was already at a 30-year low, according to the news release.

The Transportation Security Administration — the agency responsible for getting airline passengers through security — is also sending essential employees to work without pay because of the government shutdown. The same goes for safety inspectors, air marshals, and many law enforcement officers that staff airports, the organizations said in Wednesday’s news release. It’s illegal for those federal employees to strike. But 800,000 federal workers and countless government contractors are about to miss their second paycheck since the government shutdown began. So the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, Sara Nelson, advocated for private sector workers to strike on Monday, in solidarity with those unable to protest in the public sector.

“Federal sector unions have their hands full caring for the 800,000 federal workers who are at the tip of the spear. Some would say the answer is for them to walk off the job,” Nelson said during a speech at an award ceremony honoring Martin Luther King Jr. “I say, ‘What are you willing to do? Their destiny is tied up with our destiny — and they don’t even have time to ask us for help. Don’t wait for an invitation. Get engaged, join or plan a rally, get on a picket line, organize sit-ins at lawmakers’ offices.’ “

With Feb. 1 coming up, the lack of income is squeezing federal workers that have to make rent and make car payments. “Those are the things that I’m thinking about when I’m sitting in front of a radar scope, controlling thousands of lives throughout the sky,” Sam Baldasano, an air traffic controller based in Knoxville, Tennessee, told VICE News.

Plus, some airport and airline employees are beginning to call in sick, since they can’t afford to come into work. On Sunday, a whopping 3,000 TSA screeners called out of work. And nearly 20 percent of the government’s air traffic controllers are eligible to retire, as the unions noted in Wednesday’s statement. Should they lose faith in their employer and walk off the job en-masse, the whole system “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 groups said in the press release. “To avoid disruption to our aviation system, we urge Congress and the White House to take all necessary steps to end this shutdown immediately.”

Cover image: A TSA worker helps passengers at the Salt Lake City International Airport, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)