An air traffic control tower at Laguardia Airport.
At Laguardia, a shortage of air traffic controllers caused delays Friday morning. Mike Segar/Reuters

A pilot explains how a month-long shutdown will have lasting effects on air traffic controllers. “I can hear stress in their voice that didn’t used to be there.”

Updated: January 26, 2019

On Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump announced he would agree to end the partial government shutdown by signing a bill to fund the government for three weeks. During that time, he says he’ll continue negotiations with Congress over a deal for a border wall. Trump’s capitulation came after a morning of delays reported in airports across the country, including New York’s LaGuardia and Newark airports, as well as Philadelphia International. Citing a shortage of air traffic controllers, the Federal Aviation Administration had to temporarily ground some planes in a few airports.

Airports were hardly the only pressure point on Trump, but throughout January, they played an outsize role in focusing the public’s attention on the effects of a prolonged shutdown. For that reason, legislators and analysts predicted that it would be the stress on airports that would eventually force an end to the impasse.

Friday morning—with word spreading that air traffic controllers were calling in sick in large enough numbers to gum up air travel operations—that seemed to be coming true. Though the FAA says the “slight increase in sick leave at two facilities” Friday morning hardly caused chaos, it was enough to spook the public.

The funding bill passed Congress and was signed into law late Friday. Still, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether we’ll be back in the same position three weeks from now.

Before Trump promised to reopen the government, CityLab called Kirk Koenig, the co-founder of an aviation consulting firm and a commercial pilot for “one of the major airlines.” We wanted to know more about how the shutdown was straining America’s airports. Even if the shutdown ends now and doesn’t resurface, the interview lends important insight on what became one of the most high-profile tensions of the past 35 days. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

You’ve been talking to air traffic controllers this month. What have you been hearing?

Controllers are not being hired now; new controllers are not being trained now; current controllers are working more. I fly. 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.

Air traffic controllers are one of the primary safety systems in aviation. Aviation safety is built upon layers of redundancy, so that when one thing goes wrong, there’s a backup. But we can’t operate without the controllers. And when you start having fewer and fewer controllers, and the others have to work more and more, you’re eroding safety. I don’t know if you see the irony: The president claims that safety and security are important on the border, but you are lowering the level of safety in aviation.

This shutdown came at an especially tough time for the industry: According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, there are “fewer fully trained controllers on the job now than any point in last 30 years.”

Most of the air traffic controllers are working more now, and there aren’t enough controllers to start with. They’re all hitting the age of retirement. There are plans to hire a lot of replacement controllers, but now with this no-money thing going on, this system stops.

It takes years to be a controller. When you get hired as an air traffic controller, you go to school. Then they assign you to your facility. In D.C., for example, you’ve got Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall, Washington National, and Dulles International airports, and there’s also an approach facility in Virginia. You get assigned to one of those places.

Now, on day one at National, they don’t let you control traffic. Day one you just start watching people. Finally, you get a little more qualified and they let you read clearances on the radio to an airplane. Still, you’re not even up on an airplane. You tell pilots, “When you take off, you’re going to fly from here, to here, to here, to here.” That’s what you do for a while.

Finally, you work your way up to being a ground controller that tells folks where to taxi around to, but you’re still not qualified to tell people where to take off, taxi, and land. It could take several years before you’re fully qualified at that top position. Then you could do any of those jobs. For approach controllers and center controllers, it’s the same way—it takes many, many years.

And, if you were in FAA’s training academy in Oklahoma City to become a controller, that’s closed.

To deal with TSA agent shortages in Atlanta, for example, additional staff have been flown in from other airports. 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 and go, “Hey we need you tomorrow because we’re short people.” That’s not how it works. An air traffic controller could do that job eventually, and it wouldn’t take him nearly as long as someone new, 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 Leesberg, Virginia, he can’t be a controller at National. It takes time and all this training stops while this goes on. So like I said: You’re needlessly eroding the level of safety.

With fewer air traffic controllers on duty, what happens at America’s airports?

You’ve got to slow everything down. If normally, three people work in the control tower, you need three for full capacity. And if you don’t have three, if 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. And 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.

How could ripple effects be felt in airports across the country, or around the world?

It wouldn’t affect [international] departures out of LaGuardia, because it’s a domestic airport. But LaGuardia is big hub for Delta, they probably have flights every hour to Atlanta, where they do go internationally.

Say a flight was supposed to come up from Atlanta to LaGuardia and then back to Atlanta and feed international departures—if they cancel that flight…

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.” Then they divvy that up based on your percentages. Delta has the most flights, so you’ve got to cancel the most flights. They usually try not to cancel the flights that end up going internationally. So it’s usually the smaller cities that are going to get whacked.

Has anything like this happened before?

The controllers were all fired back in the Reagan days, after they had a strike. It was a different situation, but traffic came to a dead stop, and it was a while before they got people who were retired air traffic controllers and military controllers.

Of course there weren’t nearly as many flights in the country, but they told all the airlines, you can only operate 15 to 20 percent of what you normally operate, and then they ramped it up.

Is this the way to end the shutdown?

In the past month, I’ve flown internationally four times. I talk to TSA agents. Several have told me that they’re sort of okay until February 1. Because everyone’s rent’s due on February 1, or their mortgage is due. That’s when a lot of people will have problems. Some of them are like, “What I’m doing is I’m going out and driving Uber after I get done working here.”

The controllers, I don’t talk to them in person, I talk to them on the radio. We’re not chit-chatting about whatever; it’s professional. I don’t know what they’re doing, or what their plans are.

But I do know the TSA people, and it’s certainly getting worse for them around the country. Each week, it’s going to get worse.

People will start missing their flights and missing their vacations and business meetings and business deals, and then, 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, then you’re pretty much going to have to fund these people. Somehow, you’re going to have to.

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