Potential return of shutdown looms on air traffic controllers' radars

Experts say stress of missed paychecks is wearing, but "once you plug into a position and start talking to airplanes, you’re going to give it 100 percent."

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By Ethan Sacks

Despite the delays that wracked airports across the Northeast on Friday because of a shortage of air traffic controllers at their stations, experts say aviation safety would not be compromised if another government shutdown looming on the horizon should occur.

Air traffic controllers had been among the highest profile of the estimated 800,000 federal employees who endured the 35-day furlough without pay. While striking is illegal for federal workers, enough staffers called out sick at air traffic centers outside of Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday to delay flights across the East Coast, hitting LaGuardia Airport particularly hard.

Union officials have suggested that the stress of missed mortgage payments and the inability to pay for groceries could pose a dangerous distraction in an already high-pressure job.

"If it takes a toll on their body thinking about that stuff, it might mean they're more tired," retired controller Darwin Klontz, the head of the Air Traffic Control Program at Texas State Technical College, told NBC News. "I’ve known controllers that the stress of a divorce caused anxiety in them that might interfere with their work. So I can see a lot of people working in the field right now or graduates from our program and I feel for them. I know the stress of not being paid is wearing on them.

"But once you plug into a position and start talking to airplanes, you’re going to still give it 100 percent," added Klontz, a retired controller with 30 years of experience between the FAA and the Air Force.

Later in the day, controllers got a reprieve when President Donald Trump announced a short-term deal that ended the longest shutdown in American history — at least through Feb. 15 — to allow talks to continue over the proposed wall on the southern border.

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Air-traffic controllers work in the control tower at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, on Jan. 21, 2011.Andrew Gombert / EPA file

There remains, however, the prospect of a similar crisis if the new deadline is reached before a deal is.

And that means air traffic controllers are still stuck in a holding pattern.

"Although the news today is positive, we must not lose focus on the short-term nature of this agreement, and the need to continue to make our voice heard to avoid another shutdown on February 15, 2019," Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a statement.

"This 35-day shutdown reinforces our strong belief that the status quo is broken.... The constant funding crises that arise from stop-and-go funding continue to wreak havoc on our system and perpetuate the current staffing crisis, which has resulted in a 30-year low of certified professional controllers."

Klontz, however, says there are enough technical redundancies and human supervision in place to minimize the potential for safety issues in the event of future staffing shortages.

"Some of the younger guys live pay check and pay check and it’s a tough transition to not get paid," said George Williams, an air traffic consultant who retired from the FAA after 35 years.

"But you’ll always have staffing. And if you have one or two calling in sick, the FAA will bring people in to get the job done."

Williams said that the 1981 air traffic controllers strike — which was crushed by then-President Reagan, leading to the firing of more than 11,000 controllers and the decertification of their union — showed that the system could absorb a drastic shortage of workers in the short term.

The same national flow control facility outside Washington where the FAA monitors the acceptance rate at airports and adjusts for weather disruptions can also be used to account for staffing shortages at airports across the country. In other words, the system will slow the departures and takeoffs to account for any dips in manpower in individual towers, as was evident Friday.

When Klontz was a supervisor at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, he said if there were too many people out sick, they would adjust the rate of departures to make the workload more manageable.

"'Safe, orderly and expeditious,' that’s what it says in our initial training order," said Klontz. "'Safe' is always going to be first, 'orderly' is going to be second, but 'expeditious' may take a hit."