The 35-day US government shutdown may have seriously delayed critical NextGen programmes needed to modernise the nation’s air traffic system, according to controllers’ union chief Paul Rinaldi.
Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told the Aero Club in Washington on Tuesday that the shutdown had halted work on a new surveillance system being installed at facilities around the country needed to monitor aircraft starting in 2020.
“NextGen activities that we’ve worked so hard on—including the Northeast Corridor, Data Comm, our runway safety programmes, equipment to prevent a catastrophic event from happening—stopped deploying,” Rinaldi said. “And now there’s a possibility that the [Federal Aviation Administration] won’t be able to meet their 2020 mandate of ADS-B.”
“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.”
When federal funding was blocked on December 22, more than a dozen major agencies and departments had to temporarily lay-off staff, due to a dispute between US President Donald Trump who wanted to spend billions of dollars building a wall at the Mexico border and Democratic legislators who objected. Air traffic controllers were exempt and continued to work through the shutdown, albeit with no pay.
Rinaldi said he had begun hearing reports of his members making errors during the shutdown as a result of the growing stress of working without pay. While the errors didn’t directly jeopardise safety, it was a sign that things were getting worse.
“The FAA stopped addressing risk identified through our voluntary reporting programmes and that is where we can say our system was less safe, and is less safe today, than it was on December 21,” he added.
Some have speculated that it took six controllers out of a rostered 13 to call in sick at a Virginia air traffic facility on January 25 to force the government to take stock. The resulting flight delays were never officially linked to the shutdown – according to the union, overall controller absentee rates had been lower than average – but it did seem to have broken the political impasse.
By Friday afternoon, agreement had been reached allowing lawmakers and President Donald Trump until February 15 to reach agreement on future government funding. Even so, the threat of no resolution continues to weigh heavily on the system.
“Every threat creates a massive amount of work for the agency and for us, because you don’t know if they’re going to shut down,” said Rinaldi who added that the FAA has to determine who will be deemed “essential” during the partial shutdown and plan for to shelve significant projects.
“Now [that the shutdown is over], are we going to start back up on Data Comm and things like that? Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t,” Rinaldi said. “Because you have the 15th right in front of you. You’d already have to be preparing to tear it down.”
The shutdown also suspended training at the FAA’s ATC academy in Oklahoma City at a time of record shortages of qualified controllers, most airport construction, maintenance of critical equipment, and aviation rulemaking and certification activities.
The 30-year low in certified controllers comes as one-fifth of the workforce is reaching retirement age and Rinaldi warned that the uncertainty caused by the shutdown could push more to retire — despite there being insufficient numbers to replace them. “If 20 per cent of them go,” Rinaldi said. “We will not be able to run the volume of traffic that we run today.”
He repeated NATCA’s support for a legislative solution to provide ‘stable, predictable’ funding of the FAA. “Our system was running full-steam ahead on December 21,” Rinaldi said. “We’ve lost time, we’ve lost energy, we’ve lost people, and a lot of people lost heart.”
VIDEO Aero Club speech by NATCA president Paul Rinaldi (starts 7:22)