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The shutdown’s impact on air traffic controllers

The shutdown’s impact on air traffic controllers

February 1, 2019

The federal shutdown, which ended last Friday, created quite an impact on air traffic control. The impact on its workforce could be affected for years.

A Washington Post article, posted on January 30 by Ashley Halsey III, was entitled “Air traffic safety system will take time to recover post shutdown.”

Without re-writing the entire article, there were a number of key take-aways…

  • Although air traffic controllers were deemed “essential” personnel — without them the aviation system would shut down — and they worked without pay, reopening the Federal Aviation Administration Academy in Oklahoma City where new traffic controllers are trained will come gradually. It was closed during the partial shutdown; trainees and staff members were sent home. When it reopens Monday, it will be with a new class of recruits that was previously scheduled to start on that date.
  • Controllers face retirement when they reach age 56. More than 21,000 controllers — twice the number of fully-certified people now on the FAA roster — reached that age between 2011 and 2017, and 1,842 were eligible for retirement when the shutdown began.
  • The solution to a controller shortage is simple and dramatic. Rather than put safety at risk, the FAA creates additional space between aircraft so the number of controllers on hand can safely direct the planes. As a general rule, the minimal spacing is about three-miles laterally and 1,000-feet vertically.
  • When the supply of controllers from the academy grows anemic, as has been projected after the shutdown, that may lead to widespread flight delays or cancellations.
  • The consequences of disruption in a system that controls 27,000 flights from nearly 80 countries, carrying 2.3 million passengers and 55,700 tons of cargo daily, would stifle the global and domestic economy. Commercial aviation is estimated to contribute $846 billion to the U.S. economy, or 4.9 percent of the gross domestic product.

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