WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Imagine if, all of a sudden, 20 percent of the country's traffic lights stopped working. Now imagine, instead of cars being affected, it's airplanes.
This scenario is a very real risk in the aviation industry right now due to a serious air traffic controllers staffing shortage, and the recent government shutdown has only made the problem worse.
"As you know, we are at a 30-year low of fully certified controllers in the system, of which 20 percent of them can retire at any moment," Paul Rinaldi, president of the Air Traffic Controllers Association, warned the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee Wednesday. "If 20 percent retire tomorrow because we look at another shutdown, we will not be able to run the volume of traffic we do today.”
A slowdown in air traffic means much more than just longer delays at the airport. Cargo planes, mail and just about anything that is transported via aircraft could be impacted. The effect could also trickle down to airline workers, considering Delta Airlines alone reported losing $25 million in a month during the last shutdown.
While you may never see them, air traffic controllers are the highly trained experts who control U.S. airspace, ensuring the safety and efficiency of a system that sees more than 43,000 flights and 2.6 million passengers per day. It's a high-stress job that requires remarkable focus and attention to detail; even the smallest of mistakes can lead to serious safety concerns.
That said, Rinaldi noted that the U.S. air space system is the safest in the world, thanks in no small part to the air traffic controllers overseeing it. But their remarkable track record was put at risk after the government shutdown forced controllers to work without pay for more than a month.
"We were getting text messages from controllers with 17 years worth of experience making mistakes on routine clearances, climbing airplanes into paths of other airplanes at the same altitude because they were distracted," Rinaldi said. "Because they were thinking about their mortgage, they were thinking about school payments, car payments, food. They were thinking about the shutdown, they were fatigued. They were not focused on the task at hand."
Controllers were driving for Uber and working at restaurants just to pay their bills, according to Rinaldi.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has introduced legislation that would help keep the air traffic control network funded through future funding gaps, but the last shutdown is already having long-lasting effects on the industry.
"It takes three to five years to mentor an apprentice to become a fully certified controller," Rinaldi said. "The FAA had to stop their hiring and shut down the training academy because of the shutdown."
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