Air traffic controllers union head: Shutdown was making system ‘not as safe’

WASHINGTON — The president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association told WTOP on Friday that the federal government shutdown was leading to overworked controllers who were worried about making ends meet — and making routine mistakes on the job.

Before the shutdown’s end on its 35th day, Paul Rinaldi told WTOP that controllers awoke Friday to their second payless payday, and “they’re figuring out what they’re going to do for their families. They have to go make money; they have to figure something out.”

“The system is not as safe as it was before this shutdown started.”

Earlier Friday, the federal government shutdown was being blamed for flight delays at major airports in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Orlando and Atlanta,due to staffing shortages at critical air-traffic-control centers.

“Controllers are stressed,” Rinaldi said. “They’re worried; they’re tired; they’re distracted. And they’re not going to come to work if they’re not fit for duty. And that’s what we’re starting to see, and this is what we were trying to tell people. This government shutdown has got to end.”

The situation was coming at a particularly rough time for air traffic control. Rinaldi said the nation is facing a 30-year low of fully certified controllers — about 10,500. About 20 percent of those are eligible for retirement “at any moment,” Rinaldi said.

There are about 3,000 people in “the apprentice stage,” Rinaldi said, but only about half of those make it all the way through training, the apprentice stage doesn’t pay much, and “now they’re … not getting paid.”

Some controllers are giving Uber rides on the way to and from work, Rinaldi said before President Trump’s Friday afternoon announcement, and some are waiting tables in their off hours. That isn’t good for safety, he said, and was starting to show its effect at the airports.

“Air-traffic control is a high-stress occupation; they need to be rested, clearheaded and ready to work. And if they’re not, they have an [obligation] to the flying public not to come to work — if they’re not prepared to be the guardians of the national air space system.”

The controllers who have been coming to work of late are impaired, Rinaldi added. The name of the game is mitigating stress and fatigue — controllers can’t work more than 10 hours a day, or more than two hours without a break. But now, “they’re trying to figure out, ‘What do I do in my off time to put food on my table and gas in my car so I can continue to go to work?’” Rinaldi said. “They’re not mitigating their fatigue.”

That’s having an effect, he added: “I’m getting personal statements and texts from controllers saying, ’17 years I’ve never made this mistake, and now I’ve made this mistake.’”

It’s not just the controllers; it’s the support staff, Rinaldi said — the quality-assurance process of reporting problems, fixing them and spreading the word to everyone in the system has completely come to a halt.

“You can probably run the same level of safety [for] a week,” he said, but with the shutdown they had been “missing critical elements that we need to mitigate this risk.”

That’s why there’s been a shortage of controllers, and thus flights.“ We will always keep it safe,” Rinaldi said, “but as we’re seeing now … we’re going to have to put [fewer] airplanes in the sky so we can ensure the safety of the public.”

CNN contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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