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Ranks of air controllers could shrink more due to shutdown

'We know we have lost some'

Getty Images/TNS

An air traffic controller uses Data Comm, part of the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation system, in the control tower at Miami International Airport.
Getty Images/TNS An air traffic controller uses Data Comm, part of the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation system, in the control tower at Miami International Airport.

WASHINGTON — The 35-day partial government shutdown could spur early retirements among the already thin ranks of air traffic controllers and may postpone adoption of critical satellite-based aircraft navigation, a union official warned.

It will take years to recover from the disruptions that resulted from people being kept off the job while safety-critical employees such as controllers had to work without pay, Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said in a speech on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

“This shutdown cut us deep,” Rinaldi said. “It cut government employees deep. It cut our aviation industry deep.

“We’re just starting to stitch it back up. We’re not even sure what the damage really is.”

Air-traffic staffing is at a 30-year low and more retirements could cause periodic slowdowns in the aviation system, Rinaldi said. In recent days, he added, he’s heard reports of at least a handful of people opting to leave earlier than anticipated as a result of the shutdown.

“We know we have lost some,” he said.

The shutdown also halted work on a computer upgrade needed so controllers can track planes using so-called ADS-B instead of radar. The upgrade is an important foundation of the modernization effort known as NextGen that’s designed to make flight paths more efficient and safer.

Airlines and other aircraft operators are spending billions of dollars to equip their planes with the satellite technology before the end of the year.

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The Federal Aviation Administration has said it’s setting priorities after the shutdown as it attempts to resume normal operations.

“We will do our best to keep ADS-B on track and on schedule,” the agency said in a statement after Rinaldi’s speech.

The nation’s controllers, who were forced to work without pay for 35 days during the funding impasse, seemed to be a catalyst to bringing the standoff to an end on Friday. When six controllers out of 13 called in sick at a Virginia air-traffic facility, the agency couldn’t handle the normal flight volume along the East Coast and began holding planes on the ground.

The flight delays that cascaded to New York’s LaGuardia Airport and other airports were never officially linked to the shutdown and, according to the union, overall controller absentee rates had been lower than average.

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