Paul Rinaldi spent 16 years controlling air traffic at Washington Dulles Tower before accepting the reins at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in late 2009. At a National Press Club luncheon last week, he reflected on the effects of the 35-day partial government shutdown that peaked for the aviation industry on January 25 when the FAA announced delays at LaGuardia and a few surrounding enroute centers.
“This shutdown cut us deep, cut gov’t employees deep, cut our aviation industry deep,” he began. “We’re just starting to stich it back up and we’re really not sure what that damage is.” Forbes.com estimates the shutdown cost the U.S. economy in excess of $11 billion. “If you make your living in aviation, you should feel that pain our members felt for 35 days. Controllers, they were fatigued, they’re demoralized and stressed traumatized.”
NATCA members reported for work but went unpaid for more than a month before the shutdown ended. “You work around the clock and you start putting pieces together about how you’re going to get out of this mess. Putting the pieces back together is not that easy, program by program, employee by employee and still focusing on the safety of the national airspace system. The pressure and the extra stress this shutdown inserted into the NAS was intense. How many people would work five straight weeks without pay not knowing when they would be paid again?” At press time, NATCA members have been paid some, but not all of their back wages, some 10 days after the shutdown ended.
Rinaldi responded to the criticism many NATCA members received right up to the moment the shutdown ended. “I’ve heard that crappy answer that we knew eventually we would be paid. That doesn’t work for me. Our aviation professionals had to make brutal choices, like food lines. These are highly skilled, highly trained professionals who went to work every day and then had to figure out how to get food for their families.” Rinaldi said many controllers sought out locations were they were giving away food for free. “Controllers went to work every day and a few hours before, they were often driving an Uber or waiting tables a few hours after their shift trying to put some kind of economic stream back into their families.”
He told a few more stories … “Controllers had to decide to run up their credit card to put gas in the car or spend it on food for their family knowing they couldn’t do both.” Some controllers put their health second to their finances, revealing that many in the profession, like plenty of other Americans, are living from one paycheck to the next. He said the union received text messages from controllers talking about close calls, because they were distracted, struggling about feeding their families or making their mortgage payments. “These people did nothing wrong. They showed up for work did their job and were taken economic hostage by the political process of the country. The Congress and the White House did not have their finest moment during the shutdown,” adding those two branches of government are simply broken.
The union president said the shutdown halted efforts by the FAA to address risks to the NAS identified through voluntary safety reporting programs because agency personnel who keep an eye on that data were furloughed. “That’s where we can say that our system was less safe than before Dec 21. It was on the verge of unraveling. And now there’s a possibility the FAA won’t be able to meet its own 2020 ADS-B mandate.” The training of new controllers was also halted during the shutdown.
Rinaldi’s worried about the controllers currently eligible to retire, roughly 20 percent of the total number of fully certified people. “We think we’ll see a lot more people retire,” adding ominously that “When we don’t have enough controllers and there are demands coming in from all around the country something has got to give. If 20% go, we will not be able to run the volume of traffic we do today.”
Despite the doom and gloom, Rinaldi believes there could still be an opportunity for the aviation industry. He said NATCA doesn’t support any single plan to ensure a stable source of funding for the air traffic control system, despite the union’s support last year for a Republican generated strategy to sever the ATC system from the rest of the FAA. Politico reported signs last week too that many stakeholder’s desire to never again experience anything like the 35-day shutdown may reopen the debate on ATC reform. Rinaldi said NATCA believes operational safely and efficiency top the list of the union’s demands for reform, followed by the need for a stable, predictable funding stream for ATC services, staffing, hiring, training and long-term infrastructure modernization. Finally, there’s the need to maintain a dynamic aviation system that provides services to all users and segments of the aviation community.
“We cannot continue to hold our NAS hostage by issues that are not germane to aviation,” he concluded. This should never happen again. I hope the aviation community togethers says enough is enough.” He thanked everyone who helped NATCA members during the shutdown. “We won’t forget your acts of kindness.” The possibility of another shutdown looms early next week over funding for the wall President Trump wants to see built on the border with Mexico.