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How the U.S. Government shutdown is affecting Air Safety

The U.S. government shutdown has ground on beyond a month leaving controllers without a paycheck and some systems under-resourced.

As the U.S. government shutdown grinds on beyond a month, there is worry that air safety may be compromised.

The Federal Air Traffic Controllers manning the airspace above America and some oceanic regions have been working without a paycheck and there is no indication when this situation will come to an end.

There has been several government shutdowns in the past and as far as I can recall, there have been no accidents or incidents that were directly attributable to these – a testament to how robust the air traffic management system is. But this shutdown has thrusted it into unchartered waters as none of the previous ones have lasted this long.

So what is giving rise to these fears? Well, Air Traffic Controllers are humans and they have needs and commitments to fulfill. In the absence of an income to take care of themselves and families, worry will creep in and consume their thoughts.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, experts have estimated that humans can have as much as 80,000 thoughts every day and that most of these are negative ones.

Air Traffic Controllers work in an environment which requires absolute focus and undivided attention to keep aircraft at safe distances from each other.

Although these men and women that guard the skies are highly trained and work with teams and tools to help them manage air traffic, they are inherently susceptible to human flaws.

Air Traffic Controllers are quite adept at multitasking, but unfortunately we all fail miserably if we are working in an environment which require full brainpower, but instead have divided attention.

Anyone deprived of an income and still have financial commitments to meet will have some measure of their attention trained on that situation.

Our brains just are not capable of processing two dissimilar tasks simultaneous – one will suffer. But in the business of air traffic controlling, undivided attention is perhaps the number one weapon of the guardians of the skies.

In as much as Air Traffic Controllers are professionals with a commitment to maintain safety in the air, their thoughts can drift to their financial situation thereby causing unintended consequences.

Another part of the equation is the lack of required rest that each must have prior to working a shift. Those controllers who choose to take a second job just to make ends meet may find themselves infringing upon their rest period.

According to Head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Paul Rinaldi, the system is nearing a breaking point.

Speaking about the government shutdown with The Washington Post, Rinaldi said “this is adding risk into the system. I don’t know when a system gets to that critical mass, but when you take away equipment that helps us see that a plane is on the appropriate runway, that’s risk in the system. When some of our radars are down, and we’re not able to tell the pilot that there’s dangerous weather ahead until we get a pilot report of it, that’s risk in the system.”

A joint statement by the presidents of NATCA, Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) states in part: “we are not confident that system-wide analyses of safety reporting data, which is used to identify and implement corrective actions in order to reduce risks and prevent accidents is 100 percent operational due to reduced FAA resources.”

With the deck stacked against air traffic controllers and stripped-away safeguards, the safety of the traveling public is hanging in the balance.

How can you compartmentalize your personal worries and keep them from interfering with your concentration-intensive duties?

2 Responses

01.24.19

Wayne. I don’t worry so much about ATC as I do about other safety-sensitive workgroups like TSA. By comparison, controllers are well paid and can probably tap resources to weather this storm for longer.

01.24.19

I do agree with you John, but for the controllers there are still residual risks even if they can weather the storm for longer periods. Together with the TSA and other officers of Security Branch affected by the shutdown, safety is ultimately compromised.

About Wayne Farley

I am Wayne, a career air traffic controller. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from around the aviation world. A post titled “13 Characteristics of an Air Traffic Controller” written in 2010 went viral and established me as the unofficial ambassador of ATC.

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