U.S. Aviation Industry Sounds Alarm Over Concerns As Shutdown Continues

Jan 24, 2019
Originally published on January 24, 2019 8:37 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So I am ticketed to fly next week - a couple of flights, which means I read with some unease the warning sounded today by air traffic controllers and airline pilots and flight attendants and others in the nation's aviation industry. What they are warning is that as this shutdown drags on, it could soon compromise the safety and security of air travelers. Well, we asked NPR's David Schaper to check it out.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Few industries are as reliant on the federal government as aviation. Pilots need federal air traffic controllers to keep planes a safe distance from one another. Airlines need government safety inspectors to certify planes. The feds license pilots and certify training, and federal transportation security officers screen passengers and their luggage at airports. And the list goes on. But after 34 days of many of those safety-critical employees working without pay and others not working at all, those who fly the planes are not happy about it.

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SARA NELSON: We are less safe today.

SCHAPER: Sara Nelson is president of the Association of Flight Attendants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON: We understand that the critical networks - of layers of safety and security are not in place because we have people furloughed who fill those roles.

SCHAPER: Nelson spoke at a news conference at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., today along with pilots, air traffic controllers, aviation safety specialists and others. Three major U.S. airlines are also warning of the shutdown's financial toll. Southwest says it cannot launch a new service to Hawaii as planned because government approval of the route is on hold. JetBlue warns that the aviation system is near a tipping point, adding that the longer the shutdown goes on, the longer it will take for the air travel infrastructure to rebound. And American Airlines says it is affecting bookings and revenue.

The airlines worry about longer lines and wait times for passengers to get through security as TSA officers increasingly are calling supervisors reporting that they are unable to work their shifts because of the financial strain. One airport in particular where wait times have soared in recent days is Baltimore's, where at a news conference today Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, sharply criticized President Trump for the shutdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY HOGAN: Of course we're concerned about safety. The whole issue is about border security. And yet, we're going to leave our airports and our coasts, you know, with no security. It makes no sense.

SCHAPER: Meanwhile, the toll is mounting on those security officers, aviation safety specialists and air traffic controllers who are working without pay.

LARRY MCCRAY: People are starting to become angry.

SCHAPER: Larry McCray is a traffic system specialist for the FAA and among those showing the strain of working more than a month without getting a paycheck.

MCCRAY: People are becoming angry on a daily basis - becoming more and more difficult to maintain.

ERIN BOWEN: The longer this continues - the longer you have folks who are mandatory employees coming in but not receiving a paycheck to do the job you're asking them to do, the more stress they're under.

SCHAPER: That's Dr. Erin Bowen, an expert in aviation psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. And she says research shows that stress makes it difficult for people to do their jobs well.

BOWEN: And when your job is to do something like separate aircraft safely in the sky over a crowded city, those are not the folks you want who are distracted by what is really a preventable stressor.

SCHAPER: Other experts agree, saying the air travel system today is still as safe as it has ever been, but the government shutdown could bring a tipping point soon where safety and security could be compromised. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI'S "KISARAZU JINKU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.