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Air safety measures are ‘unraveling’ due to shutdown, says air traffic union

Unions representing air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants are warning that the government shutdown compromises the safety of air travel. On Thursday, they gathered at Reagan National Airport with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to express their concerns. Judy Woodruff speaks with Trish Gilbert, vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, about "unraveling" safety.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For a couple of weeks now, we have seen more reports of temporary shutdowns of some terminals or security checkpoints in large city airports such as Houston and Miami.

    There have also been reports of growing security lines periodically and a rising percentage of TSA workers calling in sick.

    But, on Wednesday, the unions that represent pilots, flight attendants and air traffic controllers issued a joint letter warning that the prolonged government shutdown is threatening air traffic safety.

    They spoke at Reagan National Airport today, and they were joined by Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia.

  • Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.:

    There are 6,300 projects going on at airports across the country, many of them safety-related, that have all been stalled by the shutdown. And when the shutdown ends, it's not like you can immediately the day after get back to normal.

    It will take a 45-to-60-day delay even after shutdown to really get us back on these safety products to business as usual.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Air traffic controllers have been working without pay now for over a month. Some have been forced to work overtime, sometimes six days a week.

    Trish Gilbert is executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. She joins me now from New York.

    Ms. Gilbert, thank you very much for joining us.

    Across the board, how have air traffic controllers been affected by this shutdown?

  • Trish Gilbert:

    Well, you know, depending on where they're working, they're handling it a little differently.

    They're all coming to work, as you have mentioned, since the shutdown has occurred without receiving pay. They're working overtime without receiving that pay, working holidays, weekends, nights, to be there to provide the service that the public deserves, safe passage through our airspace, to get goods where they need to go, to keep the economy moving.

    They're there. But the strain is becoming significant. Each day this shutdown continues, they worry about their next paycheck, and now we're set to get a second paycheck without any pay in it. And it's not just about the pay. It's the fact that they don't know how long this is going to occur.

    So, now a job where you need to be focused 100 percent of the time on making sure planes don't hit each other, they're worried about the length of the shutdown and whether they will have to find other employment, whether they will have to take jobs before or after their shift, which could add more stress and fatigue to the work environment.

    Some are already doing that. Or will they have to sell their homes or move? What are they going to be able to do? They don't know how long their savings will last because they don't know how long the shutdown will continue. It's really an unreasonable thing to ask of American citizens that provide service for American citizens.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Trish Gilbert, how you getting information about what these air traffic controllers are thinking and feeling right now?

  • Trish Gilbert:

    Well, I represent the 20,000 safety professionals in the FAA, 3,000 that are furloughed without coming to work and not getting paid. They will get their back pay, as the law says, when we open.

    But I represent many air traffic controllers, along with some other aviation safety professionals that are coming to work, as we previously mentioned. And they are writing me letters, notes. I have taken phone calls. I was an air traffic controller for 21 years in Houston, Texas, before I was elected into this position, so I know them very well.

    And I see them in pain. They're heartbroken that their — the system that they hold and safeguard, they hold so dear to them, and they safeguard the people that fly through it, is strained and it's unraveling. The safety components that are so critical to our system are being stripped away each and every day. And they're watching it happen.

    And they're upset about this. They feel like there's nothing they can do. They are leafletting at airports. They have come to D.C. on a day off, if they could — on the day off, when they have it, to talk to their elected representatives.

    They are also talking to the media across the country. They are really, really trying to help all of us that would like to see this government running at full capacity, so we can ensure safety, back open. We need the government back open, and we need it back open yesterday.

    We cannot sustain this irresponsible and reckless government shutdown.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This has to be, if not alarming, at the very least concerning, to Americans who are listening to this, who are watching you right now.

    Give us a sense. Take us inside the job, say, of an air traffic controller who comes to work, who is worried about, as you say, how they are going to make their next mortgage payment, or whether they're going to be able to afford what their family needs.

    How does that affect the work that they do?

  • Trish Gilbert:

    So, they are already working very long hours, because we are at a 30-year low of fully certified air traffic controllers.

    And now that staffing crisis will continue even well after the government opens. So they are going to look forward to many, many years of mandatory overtime to keep the system running, because they have quit hiring. They have shut our academy in Oklahoma City where our new hires start their careers.

    We have 2,000 out of 10,500 eligible to retire, likely will go, out of frustration. So they're going to — they're looking at a career of many months and years of working six days a week. So they're frustrated with that.

    So they come into the profession that they love, but nobody wants to work that long every single — forever and ever. They need to get some relief. They need some — we need to start hiring more once this ends. We need to work on training, all the things that we're not doing now in this government shutdown.

    We're not training people to replace those that are getting fatigued and need to focus on, again, separating planes, preventing them from hitting each other.

    I'm getting notes from people that are saying they're making mistakes that they hadn't made in the 10, 15, 20 years of service that they have been an air traffic controller. They're making them because they're stressed out, because they don't know when this is going to end, and they're distracted.

    And we can't have that. We cannot have that in our system. It's unsafe, and we need to open the government, get them paid, get their support team there, our quality assurance people, our training teams, all of them there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, and make no mistake about it, we hear you saying that safety is being compromised right now.

  • Trish Gilbert:

    I think we are less safe than we were a month ago, absolutely. There are less processes in place.

    We report safety incidents, like we always have, in the last several decades — or the last decade, but nothing is happening with those reports. There's — the people that are — that wouldn't — would take action and mitigate that risk that is being reported by the front-line work force are furloughed. So we're not seeing that occur.

    We're seeing maintenance of the infrastructure, our radars and our technology, not being maintained at the level that it is when we're open. It's a fix-on-fail-type policy. And that's not adequate as well.

    So all of these things add risk into a system that needs to be completely safe for the American public.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is an alarming account.

    And, Trish Gilbert with the Air Traffic Controllers Association, we thank you very much.

  • Trish Gilbert:

    Thank you.

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