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Aviation system hits crunchtime as workers face payless ‘payday’

Federal air traffic controller union members protest the partial U.S. federal government shutdown in a rally at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The nation’s airports remain fully operational despite the government shutdown, but with federal aviation workers expected to miss their first paycheck Friday, union leaders said the system may begin to feel the strain.

Leaders say more workers — who continue to work because their jobs are considered essential — may decide to stay home rather than continue to work without pay.

The union that represents air traffic controllers fired off a letter to the White House and congressional leaders warning that “the human and economic consequences are increasing and doing greater harm.”

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“Training of air traffic controllers has been suspended, slowing the arrival of new workers in a system that is already at a 30-year low,” said the letter from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) that was signed by more than 30 aviation-related groups.

More than 1,800 of the 10,483 controllers are eligible for retirement, and close to 15,000 retired in the previous five years, the legacy of 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired all the striking controllers.

Hydrick Thomas, president of the union that represents Transportation Security Administration workers who have remained on the job at airport checkpoints, said Congress and the White House should “stop using federal workers . . . as pawns in their political games.”

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“Every day I’m getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck,” Thomas said in a statement. “Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown.”

At an afternoon rally, NATCA president Paul Rinaldi and Mike Perrone, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, were among those who addressed a crowd of federal workers, many of them furloughed for the duration of the shutdown.

“We do it because it’s the safety of the flying public,” Perrone said. “The people that fly are doing what they need to do. Nobody is overseeing that. We do not have inspectors looking and making sure that this system continues to be safe. We’re not saying that it’s unsafe at the moment, but every day the government is shut down, safety is going to be compromised.”

Most federal workers are paid every two weeks. As a result, the checkpoint officers to whom Thomas refers to have not yet missed a payday. Like federal air traffic controllers, who also are working without the promise of a paycheck, the TSA workers will miss their first paycheck Friday.

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On Wednesday, TSA spokesman Jim Gregory said the agency screened 1.74 million passengers at airport checkpoints, with 95 percent of them delayed less than 15 minutes. He said the absentee rate among checkpoint workers was 5 percent., in contrast to a 3.6 percent unscheduled absence rate on Jan. 9, 2018.

“We want to echo the sentiments of industry, the traveling public and TSA leadership who are proud of and thankful for the more than 51,000 officers across the country who remain focused on the mission,” Gregory said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that its air traffic controllers remain on the job.

“We currently have not seen an unusual rate of sick leave requests,” FAA spokesman Gregory Martin said. “We appreciate our controllers’ service and dedication to their critical safety mission.”

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The NATCA letter to President Trump and the congressional leadership said that “the degradation of morale and impact on retention rates” of FAA staff members “should not be underestimated.” In addition to the president, it was addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The letter also ticked off potential impacts on aviation safety if the federal shutdown continues, concluding that “this partial shutdown has already inflicted real damage on our nation’s aviation system and the impacts will only worsen over time.”

Thomas echoed similar themes in his statement.

Unions say TSA workers can’t afford to man checkpoints without a paycheck

“Our officers have undergone a tremendous amount of training and taken an oath to protect this country,” he said. “We’re risking losing them by offering no pay for long hours and dangerous work. Congress and the administration must get their priorities right and reopen the government so we can pay these officers for the work they’ve done and not risk losing any more than we already have.”

Just as the number of air traffic controllers has dwindled, Thomas said that the unionized TSA workforce has shrunk by 3,000 even as it has handled a higher number of passengers.

“The agency’s attrition rate has grown steadily this decade, peaking in 2014 when 373 people joined the agency and 4,644 left,” he said.