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Shutdown Could Do Long-Term Harm To Already-Thin Air Traffic Control Teams


Air traffic controllers are considered essential workers. Without them, the nation's commercial flights can't fly. So controllers must report to work even though they are not getting paid. That's putting stress on those already in a high-stress job. It's also hurting the ability of the industry to attract new air traffic controllers, says our next guest. Joel Ortiz is an air traffic controller and vice president of his union. He joins us from Corona, Calif. Welcome.

JOEL ORTIZ: Good morning. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm good. Thank you. How hard is this shutdown hitting air traffic controllers?

ORTIZ: I'll tell you. This is a - this one is different than all the ones in the past. It's the first time they've experienced a shutdown where they haven't gotten a check. And morale is low. Stress is high. We are slowly seeing resignations come in across the country. The developmentals - or the new hires that were going to the academy - they've been sent home. Staffing is at an all-time low. So it's impacting the industry in more than one way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There have been warnings even before the shutdown that the industry is in trouble. Why is there a shortage of air traffic controllers? What's happening?

ORTIZ: So let's go back to 2013, the last shutdown that was 16 days long. That year, the academy, due to sequestration, was closed for the entire year. So while we're experiencing a mass exodus of retirements, we weren't bringing new hires in to replace them because the academy where we sent people to train to go to the field was shut down for the entire year. 2013 was the - at that time, the 30-year low in certified air traffic controllers. And now, at our all-time low, we're now in the midst of a - the longest shutdown in history. And it's just exacerbating a problem that's already been existing for seven, eight years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to ask you, Mr. Ortiz - at one airport, members of your union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, issued leaflets to passengers describing the effects of the shutdown. For example, one quote said, "the FAA has stopped issuing Airworthiness Directives," which mandate safety fixes to existing aircraft. I must ask you, is it safe to fly?

ORTIZ: I'll tell you. When you're in the air and the air traffic controllers are working you, you're safe. The problem with all these - the nonessential personnel not being - doing their job functions is there's jobs like quality control, safety reporting, quality assurance. All these functions are essential to making the National Airspace System work and function at its peak efficiency. So when you're not getting Airworthiness Directives, you're not getting the safety reporting. People aren't doing the quality assurance reports, quality control reports. All those things that assist the controllers in doing their jobs - slowly but surely, the longer the shutdown continues, it's going to erode the system. And that just means as time goes on, we're going to be able to put less planes in the air. When you're in the air, you're safe. But eventually, the delays and the impact of all these people not doing their job functions is going to take a toll. And it just could mean less planes in the air and farther apart, longer delays.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joel Ortiz is the Western Pacific regional vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Thank you.

ORTIZ: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.