Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
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What We’re Following
Up in the air: The government shutdown has finally hit the tarmac. The FAA tells the New York Times that it is rerouting planes and slowing air traffic to deal with an increase of air traffic controllers calling in sick at two facilities, one near Washington, D.C., and another in Jacksonville, Florida. While it hasn’t brought any airport to a complete halt, the FAA’s status page has posted ground delays for New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Newark International Airport, along with general delays and cancellations along the Eastern Seaboard. We’re keeping an eye on FlightAware’s “misery map” to see if any ripple effects build up this afternoon. (Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports a tentative deal has just been reached to temporarily reopen the government.)
Today, CityLab’s Sarah Holder spoke with Kirk Koenig, an aviation consultant and pilot who has flown commercial aircraft for 29 years, to understand how an extended shutdown and a shortage of staff rattles air traffic control operations. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Controllers are not being hired now; new controllers are not being trained now; current controllers are working more, without pay. What are you hearing from air traffic controllers as a result of this?
I’ve flown four times this month. I can hear stress in their voice that didn’t used to be there. Of course, being an air traffic controller is stressful. But I can sense the stress.
To deal with TSA worker shortages in Atlanta, for example, workers have been flown in from other places. Why can’t you do that with air traffic controllers?
If you’re fully trained in Chicago, you can’t all of a sudden go to LaGuardia. ... [A controller] could do that job eventually… but he has to learn how they do it over there. It’s not interchangeable. There’s also different levels of these facilities: Someone who’s a tower controller at a level-one facility, like Leesburg, Virginia, he can’t be a controller at [Washington National Airport]. It takes time, and all this training stops while [the shutdown] goes on. You’re needlessly eroding the level of safety.
And logistically, what happens when there are fewer controllers?
You’ve got to slow everything down. … If you need three [people] for full capacity, and if you don’t have three, you end up with two that day, because somebody called in sick or is on vacation? You’re going to have to slow the flow down. When you slow the flow, either everything gets slowed down massively or you start the cancellations so you can keep the flow going, but with fewer flights.
What they do is they tell the airline, if it’s 40 [flights] an hour on a good day, but we lost a controller, they could say you’re only allowed to land 20 in an hour. They divvy that up based on your percentages.
What’s expected if the shutdown continues much longer?
Each week, it’s going to get worse. People will start missing their flights and missing their vacations and business meetings and business deals. … If today’s issue with LaGuardia was just a one-time thing, maybe it’s not a big deal. But if that starts happening on a regular basis, you’re pretty much going to have to fund these people. Somehow, you’re going to have to.
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Japan is getting serious about flying cars (Bloomberg)
Why U.S. cities should stop whining and embrace winter (Curbed)
Is Chicago’s legacy of segregation causing a reverse Great Migration? (Chicago Reader)
The tech revolt: The workers pushing employers, from ICE to Amazon, for a more ethical Silicon Valley (California Sunday)