How the Shutdown Hobbled Air Traffic Control
The association representing U.S. air traffic controllers says that working without their systems’ maintenance staff due to the government shutdown left many of the nation's airports one technological glitch away from major flight delays.
Update: This post has been updated from its original version to reflect a deal to end the 16-day partial government shutdown agreed to by Congress Oct. 16.
The nation’s weakened air traffic control system was not in danger of creating an unsafe environment for travelers due to the federal government shutdown, but any unanticipated technological failure could have lead to significant travel delays and other problems, the head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) recently told Reuters.
Though government personnel furloughed by the shutdown were expected back to work Thursday on news that a deal had been approved by Congress to end the shutdown and save the country from default, many of the technicians and engineers responsible for radar and communication system maintenance had been sidelined since the shutdown went into effect on October 1.
“The impact will come as we continue to run this system without our full team out there,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi told the news service in an interview last week while employees were still out of work. At the time, he said that major airlines, including Delta, United, and American, could be affected.
Without proper maintenance, Rinaldi said, it’s inevitable that technology will break down—and should that happen, it “will limit the amount of airplanes we put in certain areas.”
In total, the agency furloughed some 15,500 employees, or more than one-third of its workforce, during the shutdown.
Ready to Fly
Workers weren’t the only ones grounded during the impasse. Without employees to approve aircraft registries, several planes were kept from joining their fleets.
At a rally staged for air traffic controllers and other industry workers in Washington last week, National Business Aviation Association President and CEO Ed Bolen made the case to industry publication AIN that airplane registry should be considered an essential service, arguing that the information collected as part of the registration process is “vital to protect human life and property.”
Prior to the government shutdown ending, as many as 150 aircraft deliveries worth nearly $2 billion collectively were stalled or delayed, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association told AIN.
In Atlanta, more than 600 air traffic controllers were forced to work without pay until a deal to end the shutdown was reached, local NBC affiliate WXIA-TV reported.
“It’s a standoff. And both sides seem to be backing up and punting, and we seem to be the football right now,” said Victor Santore, NATCA’s southern regional vice president last week.
“Every day this goes on, it just peels away at the margin of safety,” Santore said. “The job of an air traffic controller is stressful to begin with. There’s no reason to add this extra stress, and just treat us like pawns in a game of chess.”