Aviation workers say government shutdown 'needlessly risks' safety in the skies

Employees with the Transportation Security Administration walk through Reagan National Airport in Washington. Reuters

Employees with the Transportation Security Administration walk through Reagan National Airport in Washington. Reuters

On Thursday, TSA employees demonstrated against the government shutdown outside Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

A union that represents thousands of USA air traffic controllers filed a lawsuit against the federal government on Friday claiming its failure to pay the workers during an ongoing partial government shutdown could endanger the safety of passengers.

Federal workers and agencies are feeling the negative impact of the shutdown. TSA said only about 220,000 travelers waited at least 15 minutes at checkpoints, while 0.2 percent - fewer than 5,000 - waited at least 30 minutes.

The AFGE Local 554 held a rally in front of the Domestic North Terminal of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport Thursday afternoon. TSA spokesman Michael Bilello conceded that the screener absentee rate is up, but said it was only slightly higher than normal for this time of year.

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Bilello said there had been no spike in employees quitting and that on Tuesday, 5 percent of officers took unscheduled leave, up just slightly from 3.9 percent the same day previous year.

But U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, questioned how long adequate staffing at airports could continue.

"TSA officers are among the lowest paid federal employees, with many living pay cheque to pay cheque", he wrote.

Bilello said TSA is still hiring officers and working on contingency plans in case the shutdown lasts beyond Friday, when officers would miss their first paycheck since the shutdown began on December 22. And Delta Air Lines' plans to start flying its newest aircraft, the Airbus A220, by the end of this month could also be affected.

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"The shutdown needlessly risks the safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace system", Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said in a show of industry solidarity toward the federal workers hit by the funding fight.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association noted that the number controllers is now at a 30-year low, with 18 percent of controllers eligible to retire.

If a significant number of controllers missed work, the Federal Aviation Administration could be forced to extend the amount of time between takeoffs and landings, which could delay travel, it said.

"Each day, the FAA's Air Traffic Controllers", the lawsuit says, "are responsible for ensuring the safe routing of tens of thousands of flights, often working lengthy, grueling overtime shifts to do so. In fact, plaintiffs' job is so demanding and requires such rare stills that the FAA struggles to maintain a full complement of certified Air Traffic Controllers".

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