(Ben Brandstein / Gothamist)
When it comes to discussing the partial government shutdown’s impact on airports, most of the attention has focused on TSA workers, who have been working without pay since December 22nd. But there is another group of federal airport safety workers that have been equally affected by the shutdown, and they predict it will have a cascading impact on airline safety far beyond when (if?!) the budget fight in Washington ends.
On Thursday morning, about a dozen federal workers gathered together in LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal A parking lot, bearing picket signs that read, “Don’t Gamble With Aviation Safety.” They were speaking on behalf of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), which represents nearly 11,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees who have either been furloughed or are working without pay—workers who are responsible for things like navigational and communication equipment that airports use every day to maintain air safety.
“The next time you’re in an airplane, look out the window at all of the systems that are around you,” said Luke Drake, Region 1 Vice President for PASS. “Look at those little orange and white buildings on the runway. All of those allow for aircrafts to land and take off safely and get passengers where they need to go. Any diminishment of the maintenance of those affects everybody.” And as the partial government shutdown is set to enter its fifth week, those buildings are slowly going dark.
Many airline safety jobs entail 24-hour operations, which is usually bearable thanks to the overtime pay. But there’s no overtime pay during a shutdown, requiring fewer workers to put in longer hours for nothing. Under those conditions, it’s easy to see why some workers might quit and look for another job. But when it comes to airline safety, losing a single employee could have lasting consequences.
Mark Dunlap, a PASS Region 1 assistant, said new airway transportation systems specialists must first go to Oklahoma City, where they spend years getting trained on complex systems and machinery. This is then followed by an “apprentice” program with someone guiding them onsite until they pass their certification exam.
“It takes three, four, five years before they’re fully certified and can hold a watch by themselves,” Dunlap said. So if, after all that training, an employee decides to quit their job, it’s impossible to fill their position right away. “If someone of seniority and experience leaves us,” added Ben Struck, the chapter vice president, “it’s going to take at least three years if not longer to fill that position with the same amount of expertise.”
Alexis Trotter is an airway transportation systems specialist who said she was scheduled to return to Oklahoma City this coming Tuesday to attend a class on how to switch from general power to backup power when the need arises. It’s an important class for Trotter to take, and this morning it was cancelled.
“There’s no information when it will open again, but it’ll probably be months down the line,” Trotter said. And with the class postponed, Trotter will have to take other classes later, which will impact when she can take her certification exam, which means it will take longer for her to get a promotion, which, in turn, will affect her pay rate. All of this can make coming into work feel like a losing battle.
“I don’t want to leave, I know it’s a good job with good benefits,” said Trotter. “But I can’t stick through it much longer. Bills come. Just because the government is shut down doesn’t mean the bills are, too.”
Friday marked day 28 of the shutdown, the longest in American history, with no end in sight. Democrats are refusing to approve funding for President Trump’s $5.7 billion wall along the Southern border, and though a budget has passed the House and previously the Senate by a veto-proof majority, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring the budget up for a vote unless Trump is willing to sign it.
A spokesperson for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the main NYC airports, declined to comment, stating that their only involvement was to provide a space for picketers.
““Is everyone still safe flying? Probably yes,” Dunlap said later. “But as you keep going on, cracks start to form. And we cover so many aspects in aviation safety you can’t afford to have any cracks at all if you want everybody to be safe. The longer this goes on the more chances that something’s going to break. That’s what has us concerned.”