James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.
The nation’s roughly 15,000 air-traffic controllers don’t do exactly what some people might imagine—namely, keep airplanes from completely losing their way or falling out of the sky. As William Langewiesche memorably described in The Atlantic back in 1997 in ”Slam and Jam,” planes and flight crews are perfectly capable of taking off and landing on their own (as smaller planes do at the vast majority of the country’s 4,000 or so airports, only about 500 of which have control towers at all). And with modern navigation systems, pilots may have a clearer sense from inside the cockpit of where their airplane is, and where it should go, than controllers do from their radar screens.
What controllers make possible is the complexity and scale of the modern U.S. air-traffic system, and its ability to handle so many airliners, crammed with so many passengers, heading for the same handful of sought-after landing spaces at major airports, at the same peak travel times—and for that system to have such a remarkable record of safety. Entire years go by with zero fatalities on U.S. airliners—from equipment failure, from pilot error, from terrorism, from whatever. There were no such fatalities from 2013 through 2017, and exactly one last year, in 2018. By comparison, 80 to 100 Americans die every day in car crashes.
The controllers do this by sequencing and coordinating planes in a vast ballet of the sky, so airliners can line up dozens of miles out from the approaches to LaGuardia or SFO or LAX or O’Hare, and then can touch down safely one right after the other, pushing these finite amounts of takeoff-and-landing space toward their theoretical maximum capacity. Controllers do this with the unflappable calm that we’d all like to think we’d exhibit in times of stress—and that controllers virtually always do. I say this based on reading articles about controller training, like this and this, having visited control centers around the country, and dealing with controllers over the decades as a pilot myself, leading to articles like this one (about the sangfroid of the team at LaGuardia, when one plane had a landing problem that closed a runway and the controllers immediately had to reroute the dozens of other planes headed toward the same spot).
These men and women are doing America’s work, they’re doing it skillfully and safely, and they’re doing it with constant reminders of the very high stakes if they should screw up.
And right now, they’re doing it without paychecks. For reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with any controller as an individual nor all controllers as a group, they’re all being told to show up, keep millions of passengers as safe as ever, and worry about their back pay some other time.
As the Airline Pilots Association said this past weekend, in a letter urging an end to the shutdown, the controllers and other workers “are dutifully providing safety of life services while facing increasingly difficult financial pressures to provide for those dependent on their paycheck.
“The pressure these civil servants are facing at home should not be ignored.”
Will some airliner crash because of the shutdown? I don’t think so. The system is so triply redundant in its safety awareness and practices that a catastrophic failure, while always possible, remains improbable. But what will happen, and no doubt already has, is that the air-travel system as a whole will further slow down, precisely because people are aware of the additional safety risk.
If you’ve ever traveled in China’s commercial airline system, you know how modern its airplanes are—and how slow its operations are, compared with those in Europe or North America. That’s partly because China has so many people, so few airports, and so little airspace that’s not under military control. But it’s also because the air-traffic control system there has so much less experience on which to draw than North America’s or Europe’s, and therefore builds extra safety buffers into everything it does. (For instance: Planes might land every 60 seconds at the busiest U.S. airports, versus every three or four minutes at a busy Chinese airport.)
America’s controllers and their colleagues are hyper-safety-conscious. So under additional stress, as they are feeling now, they will add extra margin and slow things down—as they should. They will do this to protect all of us in the traveling public, because of a huge outside stressor that not a single one of them should be blamed for.
Something similar will inevitably happen with TSA employees. Working as a TSA screener is much less glamorous than being an air-traffic controller, and everyone who’s been to an airport has a “What is the TSA thinking?” gripe to share. But the reality is that these are also very high-stress jobs. In the few seconds spent looking at each bag, the TSA screener will inevitably imagine, What if this is the bag that becomes world-famous, because of the danger sign I missed? (Meanwhile, passengers are rolling their eyes and thinking, Come on, what is the pointless holdup here? Just get me through this damned line!)
The point for the moment is not the larger logic of anti-terrorist activities (which I’ve addressed here and elsewhere). It’s the immediate reality that thousands of TSA workers are in stressful jobs, where they are dealing with a public that is generally grouchy; not getting a lot of ego- or status-boosting feedback from their daily work; and all the while knowing that a screwup could really be disastrous. And now they’re not getting paychecks for it!
This is crazy, it could be dangerous, and it is definitely unfair.
I could go on about the National Park rangers, about people who should be working on the IRS help lines, about FAA researchers and regulators, about many others. But I won’t.
Instead, let’s be 100 percent clear about the path that led to this unfair, potentially dangerous, and completely unnecessary failure of governance:
- On December 11, in the Oval Office, Donald Trump told Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that he would be “proud” to take responsibility for a shutdown. “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck … So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it … I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.”
- Because Republican legislators lacked Trump’s “Bring it on!” enthusiasm for a shutdown, on December 19 the Senate, under Mitch McConnell’s Republican control, unanimously passed a temporary-funding measure that would have kept the government open but did not include money for Trump’s border wall. In usual government kick-the-can fashion, the idea was to buy time for a fight about the wall later on. The Senate took this step on the understanding that House approval and White House support had also been lined up. (Otherwise, why would McConnell take the risk?) For instance, according to one report, “Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, the current no. 2 highest-ranking Senate Republican, predicted on Wednesday that Trump would sign it. ‘He will sign a clean CR,’ Cornyn told CNN.” A “clean CR” refers to a continuing resolution that would maintain government funding but not include the wall.
- As soon as news of the apparent compromise spread, on December 20 and 21, the most fervent wall boosters began mocking Trump. Ann Coulter called him “gutless” and said that without the wall he’d have a “joke presidency.” Steve Doocy, on Fox & Friends, said that “if there’s not a shutdown, he’s going to look like a loser.” Rush Limbaugh said that Trumpwas “getting ready to cave.”
- In the face strictly of this personal mockery—not a change in the Democratic position, not pressure from Republicans in the Senate or the House—Trump immediately turned against the arrangement all Republican senators had voted for (with the understanding that he would sign it), and now said it was all-or-nothing on the wall. By the late evening of December 21, federal agencies were preparing for the shutdown that would begin at midnight.
This is unfair to air-traffic controllers and others like them, who did absolutely nothing to justify such treatment. It’s potentially dangerous, already needlessly stressful, and highly destructive in the National Parks.
McConnell could, in theory, end the impasse by reintroducing in January the funding bill that got unanimous support three weeks ago. (To spell this out: Trump could of course veto a “clean” bill that did not include wall spending. But—at least in theory—a bill that got through the first time by unanimous vote would have enough voters to override a veto, which would presumably also happen in the House.) But that is the realm of theory, like any other scenario whose elements include “Mitch McConnell taking a stand.”
Donald Trump could resolve the impasse by deciding he doesn’t care about being called “gutless” or a “joke”—or, more likely, by deciding he can find some way to cast a cave-in as another gigantic win.
Meanwhile, people working without paychecks in the control towers or airport screening lines, people watching trash pile up in the public treasures known as America’s national parks, people who’d been counting on cash from a tax refund, people unable to get their companies registered with the SEC or their new wine imports or craft-beer labels approved by the ATF, people in Washington, D.C., who’d planned to get married but can’t get a marriage license—these and millions of other people are paying the price for one man’s temperamental instability.
“Give me a lever that is long enough, and I can move the world,” Archimedes is supposed to have said. We now have a Coulter corollary, descended perhaps from Iago and Lady Macbeth. It is: Give me a man who is weak enough, and I can taunt him into anything
This article originally appeared on The Atlantic.