The longest federal government shutdown in United States history is starting to wear heavy on numerous aspects of life, including air travel through the Federal Aviation Administration.
In Indianapolis, the FAA Air Route Traffic Control Center handles air routes between airports for seven states or 75,000 miles. As of this week, the controllers have missed a second paycheck.
Air Traffic Controller and union rep Marc Schneider is one of the few employees speaking out about the effects of the shutdown, now in its second month. He says while all certified controllers are working, the support staff has been furloughed. That includes maintenance staff who fix equipment like radar systems.
“Our national air space system was intentionally designed to have redundant levels of safety,” Schneider said. “We have major systems that are actually shut down and not being repaired.”
Like the Transportation Security Administration, federal air traffic controllers are deemed critical operations and must work. Many are seeing 10-hour days. However, the shortage of qualified air traffic controllers was a problem before the shutdown.
“We’re at a 30-year low in air traffic controllers,” Schneider said. “We should have about 13,000. Now we’re just around 10,000 and of those, 3,000 are eligible to retire right now.”
The government shutdown is enticing those eligible controllers to retire now, rather than later, Schneider added. Plus, the air traffic controller academy in Oklahoma City is shuttered because of this.
Schneider admits the controllers have tried to paint a rosy picture of the shutdown, but adds that it can’t continue. The effect of losing equipment can have disastrous outcomes if the technology is not repaired, he said.
"There is no margin of error in our profession,” he said. “So everything has to be running at 100 percent. I’ve got controllers in there that are performing training, working the airplanes, who’s primary thought right now is, ‘How do I transfer this money from this credit card to that credit card to pay for gas to get to work?'”
Plus, controllers working more than 30 hours a week are not eligible for unemployment. Schneider says the controllers are working six-day weeks, 10 hours a day. The Indianapolis center also controls the traffic in and out of Atlanta, where the Super Bowl will be held Feb. 3.
“All of the departure traffic that comes out of Atlanta will be run through Indianapolis,” he said.
Lack of reliable technology will require the controllers to reduce traffic and passengers could be stranded, he said.
“Right now, our system can handle about 8,000 airplanes across the country,” Schneider said. “As these systems start to degrade, as these controllers become more fatigued, more concerned about outside influences, the capacity of the system is going to reduce.”
Schneider added that even if the stalemate was resolved and the government was reopened immediately, it would likely take six weeks before checks would be issued.