Air travel workers responded Friday to air traffic controllers calling out sick and halting flights with a simple message: The warning signs were there.
The Federal Aviation Administration halted flights to LaGuardia Airport in New York City over concerns that there were not enough air traffic controllers on the job as the government shutdown entered its 35th day, the longest in U.S. history. President Donald Trump eventually caved on his demand for more than $5 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and announced a deal for the government to reopen for three weeks.
During the shutdown, planes have not undergone routine safety inspections, and workers across the industry were warning of what could happen when unpaid and overly stressed workers were still told to come in.
“Even though air traffic controllers and traffic management coordinators remain on the job, dedicated to the safety of every flight, they don’t know when they’ll receive their next paycheck and that adds more stress to an already stressful profession,” the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said in a statement this month. “This shutdown and the resulting furloughs are rapidly eliminating the layers of redundancy and safety on which the NATCA is built.”
That stress came to a tipping point Friday when air traffic controllers appeared to call out sick en masse, on the heels of the Transportation Security Administration’s announcement that it was seeing a spike in “unscheduled absences” among its workers. Luke Drake, a regional vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, told HuffPost he wasn’t surprised that the continued stress of workers possibly unable to buy groceries would make them ill.
“I assume it has primarily to do with the stress with not only the nature of their work but having to do all of that while not being paid,” Drake said of air traffic controllers’ absences. “I’m not surprised, given we’re now at our second lost pay period, that the stresses are increasing.”
In a statement Friday, the NATCA echoed his sentiment. “In the past few weeks, we have warned about what could happen as a result of the prolonged shutdown,” the union said. “Many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry caused by this shutdown. Each hour that goes by that the shutdown continues makes the situation worse.”
The halting of flights “is exactly what AFA and other aviation unions have been warning would happen,” the Association of Flight Attendants union said in a statement.
“This is anything but a sick out - it is only about our safety and the air traffic controllers’ absolute commitment to it,” the union said. “Do we have your attention now, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell? All lawmakers?”
With the government temporarily reopening, it would appear they do.