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How Air Traffic Controllers Are Feeling the Dismal Effects of the Shutdown

Jan. 20, 2019
8 min read
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport Control Tower with Plane Taking Off
How Air Traffic Controllers Are Feeling the Dismal Effects of the Shutdown
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Spanning nearly a month, the shutdown of the US government is now the longest-ever in American history. For the past four weeks, the federal government's partial closure has taken a serious toll on US aviation and has begun to hit air traffic controllers across the country especially hard.

ATC staff, deemed essential employees and therefore compelled to work without pay until the government fully reopens, say the shutdown has created financial hardships, caused distractions, hurt morale in control towers and slowed down essential procedures, like equipment repairs.

"Morale is very low in facilities," Vito Gioia, an air traffic controller at New York's LaGuardia Airport, told TPG in an interview. "You go to work everyday, and you have your normal gripes, but we know what the topic is now. It's one of the discussions we have throughout the day," he said, noting that some ATC workers are worse off financially than others. "Some are saying if it goes for a longer period of time, they might have to write a letter to management requesting to be furloughed to go seek other employment," he said.

Many of the affected ATC employees have been through shutdowns before. But this is the first time that any report missing a paycheck due to a lapse in government funding.

NOVEMBER 25, 2013. PALM SPRINGS, CA. Air traffic controllers have a commanding view of the runways at Palm Springs International Airport and the Coachella Valley beyond from their new 150-ft-tall control tower. The huge windows in the controller work area are tinted with a coating that reduces radiant heat from the desert below. (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Air traffic controllers in the tower at the Palm Springs International Airport (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“We’re Being Penalized for Going to Work”

Not all staff associated with air traffic control are working during the shutdown. Support specialists and supervisors, who work in the bottom of the towers, are on furlough. On Wednesday, President Trump signed legislation guaranteeing back pay when the government reopens for all federal workers on unpaid furlough during the shutdown.

"Everybody downstairs who has been furloughed; they will get back pay," Gioia says. "Here we are as controllers, we must report to work. We're still working 40 hours a week; they're still calling in for overtime as well. We can’t take sick leave anymore" he says, explaining that controllers must request a furlough day, but it's not clear if those will be covered by back pay. "We’re being penalized for going to work.”

Other controllers note that all of the discussion surrounding the shutdown has diverted their attention in the tower.

"As I’m sure you are aware this job is stressful," Alex Huttenga, a local president for the Detroit chapter of the National Air Traffic Controller's Association union, said in an email. "We have to be 100% right 100% of the time, but when you aren’t being paid the distractions are only adding to stress." Huttenga also says many of his coworkers have been working six-day weeks since the shutdown began because their tower went into the shutdown already understaffed.

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"This is definitely distracting in the tower," Dion Johnson, an air traffic controller of 11 years based at MBS International Airport in Freeland, Michigan, said in an email. "It is pretty much the topic of conversation."

Bare-Bones Staff and Equipment

Controllers say that the fact their support staffs are furloughed is causing several problems in their towers. "Support isn’t coming to work, so equipment isn’t getting fixed in a timely manner," Gioia says. Technical operation workers that take care of equipment and radar have largely been furloughed, he says.

"One of our radios is down, for example — static on our frequencies — and it’s been a month now," Gioia says. He says his team keeps calling for a repair, "but they keep saying 'we'll get to it eventually.' There's a slowdown in reaction time to repair equipment."

Radar changes and improvements are also largely halted until the government reopens. "We also are in the process of consolidating our radar," Johnson, the controller at MBS, said. "And this was supposed to start at the beginning of the month, but has been put on hold. So have transfers."

Aviation experts say ATC support staff provides a crucial role, and the job is significantly more difficult without their assistance. “Right now, we are asking our controllers to maintain the safety and efficiency of the system without the necessary contribution of 3,000 safety professionals,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, wrote in a letter to Congress earlier in January. “We wouldn’t ask a surgeon to perform an operation without the assistance of a support team, and we shouldn’t be asking air traffic controllers to continue working without support staff.”

Another group of ATC employees not allowed to work during the shutdown: trainees. Because they aren't yet certified, controllers in training are on furlough, throwing a wrench in a years-long, time-sensitive program. The disruption in the certification process for current trainees could significantly stymie the pipeline of future employees.

"They're in limbo," Gioia says of the trainees, noting that the certification process is already stressful and rigorous. “When you're training as an ATC, you have to be consistent. If you’re off training 30 days, there are possibilities you have to go back to the classroom," he says. Even those classrooms are currently closed — the FAA's air traffic controller academy in Oklahoma City is closed during the shutdown. That could cause even lower level ATC recruits to drop out, metastasizing the staff shortage for years to come.

“Remember, these are low-level employees, ATC recruits,” Joe Del Balzo, a former acting head of the FAA and president of JDA Aviation Technology Solutions, told TPG. “Maybe you’re making $30,000, if that much, probably not. You’re out there on your own in Oklahoma City — that’s going to weigh on people,” adding that the shutdown will likely cause an "attitudinal effect" that could sour trainees on their future job prospects or career stability.

"The longer the shutdown goes, it will affect future workers," Gioia says.

The JFK control tower in November 2018 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
The JFK control tower in November 2018 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

Financial Hardships

For most people, missed paychecks would have a concrete effect on their finances, and ATC workers are no different — especially those new on the job.

"Several of the younger controllers are concerned they will run out of money soon," Huttenga, the Detroit union leader, says. "They’re new to the job and haven’t had an opportunity to stash away extra savings since they been focused on paying off student loan debt. One individual was in the middle of buying a house when the shutdown occurred but couldn’t close the deal because the bank withdrew the loan approval."

Huttenga added that some of the controllers he works with have started looking for other avenues of income. "Some are driving for Uber and Lyft after work and others are giving blood/plasma to try and make ends meet," he says.

Johnson, the controller at MBS airport, says he's been watching his spending, forgoing pleasures like seeing movies or going out to eat. "We had some money in savings, but that is being depleted quickly," he says. "I took out a loan from my TSP [retirement fund] and have filed for unemployment. I am in an ok position for maybe a week or two and then things will be very tight."

As for Gioia, he is in a better financial situation than some of his coworkers because his wife has a steady job.

"If it goes on for months and months, we’d have to dip in to our savings," he said. His family will likely have to skip their annual vacation as a financial precaution. "My wife and I have discussed it, and we have no plans to go anywhere. Usually by this time every year, we have our vacations picked out, but we’re not going to be doing it this year," he said.

"I have four kids, and they don’t really understand why I'm not getting paid," Gioia said. "My oldest is 10. She’s worried. I told her 'don’t worry,' but she doesn’t really understand."

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Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto