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Air traffic controllers at RDU plea for end to government shutdown, cite safety concerns

Air traffic controllers handed out these leaflets to passengers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport last week. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has expanded the campaign to more than 50 airports nationwide.
Air traffic controllers handed out these leaflets to passengers at Raleigh-Durham International Airport last week. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has expanded the campaign to more than 50 airports nationwide.

Air traffic controllers are still on the job at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and across the country, despite not being paid, but they are not remaining silent about the federal government shutdown.

They were among the first to take part in a national campaign organized by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to raise questions about aviation safety while so many Federal Aviation Administration workers are off the job.

Last week, air traffic controllers at RDU and three other airports handed leaflets to travelers outlining the shutdown’s impacts on the National Airspace System that keeps planes flying safely. The leafleting effort has since been expanded to more than 50 airports nationwide, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the union based in Washington, D.C.

Nicholas Stott, who heads the NATCA’s local at RDU, said air traffic controllers handed out flyers between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day last week and generally were well-received.

“A lot of people were saying, ‘Thank you for what you do. We support you guys. This is silly,’ ” Stott said in an interview. A few people said the U.S. should “build the wall,” a reference to President Trump’s position that Congress should provide $5.7 billion to build a wall along the Mexican border, but Stott noted that air traffic controllers don’t have a position on how the shutdown ends.

“We don’t get involved in the issues,” he said. “We’re just there to tell people how it’s affecting us and them.”

Air traffic controllers are still working, making sure planes take off and get to their destinations. They are due to get back pay once the shutdown ends.

But support staff for the controllers and people who provide other functions at the FAA are furloughed, and their absence will erode airspace safety over time, according to the union. The FAA has all but stopped issuing “airworthiness directives” that require safety fixes to aircraft and equipment, the union notes, and the loss of about 3,000 support staff will contribute to delays in maintenance that “put the technology we rely on at risk of falling behind or malfunctioning.”

The NATCA is also worried about training. The number of fully certified controllers is at a 30-year low, according to the union, and the FAA has suspended hiring and closed its training academy in Oklahoma City during the shutdown.

Stott said two controllers, a husband and wife, recently transferred to RDU from Texas but cannot work because there’s no one to train them to get them licensed in North Carolina. He likened the lack of support staff to a doctor performing surgery without assistance.

“The front line is here. We’re all here,” he said. “We just don’t have the support staff that backs us up.”

The NATCA’s leafleting campaign began last Monday at RDU and airports in Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Church, the union spokesman, said it began in those four airports because the union was able to get permits there quickly.

“The permits were the most important thing — access to public areas,” Church said. “And Raleigh was very good about that.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 19 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.


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