The government shutdown is fraying U.S. air travel in ways big and small, not just spawning long security lines at some airports but canceling some pilot training, delaying purchases of bag-scanning equipment and preventing some companies from adding new planes.
Those burdens, many invisible to the traveling public, are causing an enormous strain for the aviation system, which is expected to see a spike in passenger traffic during this three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. And they come as thousands of TSA agents, air traffic controllers and aircraft inspectors are working without pay, posing long-term worries about agencies’ ability to recruit and keep employees.
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“When the government does reopen, there’s going to be a lot of catch-up work that has to get done,” said Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, an umbrella group for dozens of transportation unions, including pilots and flight attendants.
Absences by Transportation Security Administration screeners have been running at double the typical rate. The Federal Aviation Administration has postponed certifications for new drone pilots and delayed a major conference on drones. The National Transportation Safety Board, tasked with investigating transportation accidents, has been left with a skeleton crew and has opted not to launch investigators to 14 recent accidents, including 10 aviation incidents that killed 16 people.
Some current and former lawmakers have speculated that the aviation system could reach a breaking point — perhaps a strike that halts air traffic — that would pressure Congress and the White House to settle their differences. “If TSA agents don’t go to work, the shutdown is over tomorrow,” Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester told reporters this week. “I’m not advocating they do that, but you stop air traffic and this thing’s over with.”
But a strike is not about to happen, say the unions representing TSA screeners, air traffic controllers and other critical aviation workers, which note that it would be illegal for them to walk off the job.
On the other hand, nothing prevents unpaid employees from quitting outright. Already, many are simply calling in absent because they cannot afford to work without pay.
TSA estimates more than 8 million people will fly over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend — a 10.8 percent increase over last year. Meanwhile, about 6.4 percent of the agency’s baggage screeners called out absent from work Thursday, compared with 3.8 percent for the same day in 2018.
Some agencies are trying to find ways to lessen the damage. TSA, for instance, has scraped together some money for its unpaid employees, but it’s a drop in the bucket — one day of missed pay out of almost 30, plus a $500 bonus. The FAA has also responded to worries about airline safety by bringing back in about 2,200 of its 3,000 previously furloughed safety inspectors, though it is not paying them.
Agencies are also deferring purchases and canceling training for their workers, expenses they’ll eventually have to make up. TSA said this week that it had canceled advanced training classes for screeners and other front-line employees, and it has postponed buying new 3D scanners.
The repercussions from the funding lapse are being felt throughout the aviation industry. Flight schools could be faced with canceling classes if their instructors can’t be recertified, the National Air Transportation Association wrote in an alert to members.
“Companies that provide training for pilots require regular authorizations by the FAA to issue certificates; these training providers need certain qualifications which they may lose due to the shutdown, and this could halt pilot training and may prevent aircraft from having the necessary crews to operate,” the association said.
The academy where air traffic controllers are trained is also halting classes, which could mean delays in replacing retiring controllers.
The shutdown is also hitting aviation manufacturers, including Airbus and Embraer, which haven’t been able to deliver planes to airlines. In addition, corporate jet operator NetJets hasn’t been able to add new aircraft to its fleet, Bloomberg reported.
NATA said one of its member companies has two aircraft stranded in Canada, where they were being painted and can’t get FAA approval to be flown back to the United States. Another, working with a medical client, recently purchased two Cessna CJ3+ planes but can’t get the FAA to sign off on flying them.
“According to the member company, the aircraft, once flying, will save at least one life almost every time they fly. The shutdown is preventing these aircraft from entering service and saving lives,” NATA wrote.
The FAA has also stopped processing non-routine aircraft registrations, leaving those that need more than a rubber stamp to sit idle. And the drone industry has complained that the shutdown is hampering rulemakings and preventing FAA from granting waivers.
The sharpest reaction to the shutdown so far has come from the unions representing TSA agents and air traffic controllers, which have sued the government to demand relief for their members.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA baggage screeners, sought damages including pay of $14.50 an hour for the first 40 hours of work, plus overtime, for every employee forced to work during the shutdown. That could amount to millions of dollars owed for the first missed pay period alone, said Heidi Burakiewicz, the attorney representing the union.
AFGE won a similar suit filed after a 2013 government shutdown, though the case has been tied up in courts, delaying payments.
“I really think that the next case is going to move much faster because the question of whether the government is liable has already been litigated and shouldn’t have to be relitigated,” Burakiewicz said. “The government has a road map. They had to figure out how to do this once. They shouldn’t have to do it again.”
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has also filed suit, accusing the government of withholding controllers’ “hard-earned compensation without the requisite due process.” A federal judge turned down NATCA’s demand for a temporary restraining order this week, but a hearing on the union’s motion for a preliminary injunction has been set for Jan. 31.
Absent any immediate solutions to the shutdown, some current and former lawmakers have speculated that TSA agents and air traffic controllers are uniquely positioned to get Washington’s attention — if they choose to.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) wrote in a recent op-ed that “Americans would be rightly outraged” if airport security lanes grew longer because TSA agents just stopped working, and predicted that public complaints to lawmakers and President Donald Trump would probably end the stalemate.
House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) agreed, telling POLITICO that “a significant absence” of agents “would create a serious crisis for the flying public that could very well put significant pressure on a lot of members of Congress.”
But the Transportation Trades Department’s Willis said politicians in Washington are the ones who need to find a way out of the crisis.
“The responsibility to address the shutdown does not lie with federal workers taking actions that are contrary to law,” Willis said. “It is ultimately up to our elected leaders, and up to the president, who has significant responsibility here to resolve this issue and to reopen the federal government.”
AFGE has been careful to avoid issuing any statements that appear to encourage a strike. In its media notice for a rally on Thursday, the union noted that “participation is not in any official agency capacity.”
They have good reason to be reluctant to walk off the job. A series of laws bars federal workers from organizing strikes or boycotts, and former President Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers who went on strike in 1981.
“You learn from the lessons of the past,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi told POLITICO.