Editor’s Note: Les Abend recently retired after 34 years as a Boeing 777 captain for American Airlines. He is a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Nobody wants to hear a recording of, “Sorry, we’re closed due to nonpayment.” If you’re an airline pilot requesting an approach clearance, this would be especially troublesome to say the least. We have no checklists for such things.
Fortunately, that scenario will never occur. Air traffic controllers are an essential government service, so airplanes will still be flying despite the government shutdown. But air traffic controllers are people, not robots, and soon the situation will begin to take its toll, potentially on our safety. As a veteran airline pilot I can confirm that we will all have to be especially vigilant with all aspects of aviation operations the longer this situation continues.
The controllers will soon be missing paychecks, and nobody wants to work for free. This will add to the burden of an already stressful job. Controllers will be fighting fatigue and the additional stress of not knowing how their mortgages and other bills will be paid.
Some of the Federal Aviation Administration staff members who support the controllers may not be available. New controllers who are learning the ropes often help veteran controllers with routine tasks. Unfortunately, the new kids have been furloughed. Adding insult to injury, the Oklahoma City training academy for controllers has closed during the shutdown, meaning the problem of chronic understaffing won’t get better soon.
What does this all mean for the airways? Controllers will likely increase the distance between planes while they are flying and when they are taking off and landing. This gives controllers more time to sequence the aircraft, and increases safety. But it also means delays on the ground.
Other potential effects? The FAA is responsible for inspecting and policing each airline’s operations, through principal operations inspectors assigned to each carrier. The shutdown may well have curtailed that oversight with temporary staff reductions. The FAA inspectors are also responsible for overseeing a type of pilot training called check rides. If these rides are postponed, so is the ability for some new pilots to become qualified on the aircraft for which they have trained, mostly affecting new captains. This could create a crew scheduling problem, which could have a domino effect on the airlines’ ability to schedule flights.
There’s plenty of concern among my (former) fellow pilots. The Airline Pilots Association, which represents about 61,000 pilots, wrote a letter to the President on January 2, asking him to end the shutdown. The association is concerned the situation is adversely affecting the “safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace system.”
And finally, a growing number of Transportation Security Administration agents are apparently calling in sick, according to CNN’s reporting. This means longer security lines. You can’t blame these folks for a deteriorating attitude. The bigger concern is not the security rat maze, but rather the quality of the screening itself. TSA employees are good people doing thankless jobs. I would like to believe that regardless of the unfortunate circumstances, compromising security is the furthest from their minds.
Are the skies still safe? Yes, for now, only because the people protecting your safety are professionals. But they are human, so let’s not push our luck with a protracted government shutdown. The next time you fly, be grateful for their dedication, and thank them if you can.