When David Case agreed to take over as union representative for the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) last year, he couldn’t have imagined what he’d be facing.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Case. “I didn’t expect this.”
Case is one of 12 air traffic controllers working at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport. In a major airport such as Denver International Airport, the radar center could be staffed with over 150 controllers.
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All aviation controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration and are considered “essential employees” during a government shutdown.
UPDATE (1/25/18 12:40 pm): Trump announces deal to end record-long shutdown
In the Casper tower, Case says five employees have children, six are primary household earners, and six are military veterans.
None have been paid since the shutdown began in late December, and all are responsible for keeping Casper’s air safe.
“All of the aviation employees are lumped in with the 800,000 or so federal employees who are not getting a paycheck,” said Case.
“The safety of the aviation system shouldn’t be in the middle of all this political infighting,” said Case.
Case isn’t alone. According to the New York Times, on Wednesday the heads of unions that represent 130,000 aviation professionals issued a dire warning about the shutdown and the “unconscionable safety threat that is growing by the day.”
This morning, the FAA said it was slowing traffic in and out airports due to staffing issues, causing significant delays across the Northeast.
According to C/NCIA director Glenn Januska, Casper’s airport has managed to operate smoothly so far during the shutdown.
“Passengers on commercial airlines may have different experiences at other airports, but at the Casper airport I don’t think you are going to see any change, I have not heard of any staffing issues here,” said Januska. “I certainly wouldn’t have any concern telling people to fly from a passenger screening and safety standpoint.”
Januska says along with the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) screeners and control tower employees, the airport’s customs office is also considered essential and is currently operating.
Casper’s airport is busier than it appears to travelers who fly the handful of daily commercial flights.
Casper’s air traffic includes couriers, hospital aircraft such as LifeFlight, private and business aircraft and a flight school. In all they handle an average of 110 operations per day, according to Case.
David Case moved to Casper for the airport job in July 2017. His wife is working full time on a master’s degree, making Case the primary breadwinner. He learned his profession during five years in the Navy and was able to transfer straight into civilian work.
Case says the military trained him to always have at least three months worth of savings to live off, but life often gives surprises. Case got married last year and took a honeymoon, and a few months later his wife broke her ankle. Both life events earned a dip into savings.
“I don’t want to sound alarmist, but we don’t have an end in sight,” said Case. “One of the guys came to work and said ‘I just spent the rest of the money I have on food’.”
An important aspect of air safety is fatigue mitigation, according to Case. Workers have set hours and require days off. Second jobs are seen as a potential distraction for the focused work of controlling airspace.
“If I had a guy who gets in his car at six in the morning and drives Uber until noon, drops somebody off at the airport and then comes right to work in the tower, I can’t assume that he’s properly mitigated his fatigue or that he’s in the mindset to work,” said Case.
Flying by air is extremely safe. One of the main reasons is redundancies put into place over decades, which Case describes as a “swiss cheese model.”
“Something might get through this crack, but it won’t get through the next one,” said Case. “You take a layer of safety away, take a layer of protection away, and over time what are you left with?”
Brian McBeth represents the local chapter of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS). PASS members make up the federal employees who maintain and service the equipment that flight controllers rely on, aviation inspectors and aeronautical specialists.
McBeth says “essential employees” are left with few options.
“If we just don’t show up without manager’s approval it’s considered AWOL, absent without leave,” said McBeth.
“One of the downfalls about being ‘essential’ here in Wyoming is we can’t file for unemployment,” said McBeth. Furloughed employees can file but must pay it back after the shutdown.
“There have been some local restaurants bringing food to the tower,” said McBeth. “Every day this week there’s been a different restaurant bringing food by.”
Even after a month with a shutdown, the complex aviation system will suffer effects that will take months to resolve.
Case says air traffic control towers have been understaffed for some time, and the shutdown will make hiring new recruits even more difficult.
Air traffic specialists are trained at an FAA academy in Oklahoma, explains Case, which is closed during the shutdown. “They had classes that were slated to finish in early January, we were expecting another direct hire from the academy,” said Case. “They were all sent home the weekend before they finished school.”
“It’s a very structured training program, so most people are likely going to do worse if they take a month off and we say ‘hey come back and take your final test’,” said Case, who says students will likely need to restart academy training after the shutdown.
After a candidate finishes the academy, there is another 18-months of training on the job. “It’s going to create a backlog,” said Case.
McBeth says there are four positions his union represents that need to be filled, and he’s uncertain when that can be accomplished because of the backlog. “We’re unauthorized to do any training during the shutdown, we can only do essential work,” said McBeth.
“Approximately two million Americans fly every day, and we’re the technicians, safety inspectors and aeronautical professionals that keeps the national airspace system safe,” said McBeth.
“The longer this thing drags on we’re concerned that we’ll lose people. As this thing drags on people aren’t going to make ends meet. We don’t know how long this will drag on.”
Update: Information in our original post about a planned picket event by PASS members has been removed from the story after the event was cancelled due to the expected end of the shutdown.