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Air Traffic Controllers Association Calls Shutdown 'Unacceptable'


All right. As Scott Horsley said there, one area that is being hit hard by this shutdown is airports. You may have seen footage of those long lines. You may have experienced them. The Air Line Pilots Association has written President Trump a critical letter. In it, the group urged the president to take steps to immediately end the shutdown that is, quote, "adversely affecting the safety of our national airspace system." And the National Air Traffic Controllers Association is also calling for an end to what it calls an unacceptable shutdown. Trish Gilbert is the executive vice president of that group. She's with me now in studio. Thanks for coming in.

TRISH GILBERT: Thank you, Noel.

KING: So how are air traffic controllers being affected by the partial government shutdown?

GILBERT: The profession is - requires a workforce that is highly skilled and highly trained - needs to be focused 100 percent of the time. And this uncertainty around - and this threat to their livelihood is making it very, very difficult for them to continue forward if this indeed will become months, if not years, as was previously reported. They're people just like you and me. They have obligations to meet, and that's concerning when they don't know when they're going to receive their next paycheck. In addition to that, their support structure is not there. They're all furloughed. So just like you wouldn't send a surgeon in without his support or her support team, you shouldn't expect air traffic controllers to continue to do their job without the support structure in place to support what is very important for this United States economy, which is the movement of aircraft from point A to point B and doing it safely. So those redundancies are being peeled away with the shutdown occurring day after day after day. And that is going to cause harm to the system. And even when we do eventually come out of this shutdown, there will be a lot of things that have to be done and effects that will be felt for many, many months afterwards.

KING: Should travelers be worried about their safety? I mean, air traffic control - as you mentioned, this is a very serious job. You don't want distracted people. You don't want people calling out sick. I mean, is this something that your average person flying needs to worry about right now?

GILBERT: Well, I don't think there's a safety concern at the moment. We are concerned about the redundancies being peeled away and not being in place. And when you peel those away, eventually, something's going to give. So we have concern there. We also have...

KING: When you say the redundancies being peeled away, what do you mean there? Are some - there's some level of security in each step that an air traffic controller takes and...

GILBERT: So what I mean with redundancies - I mean, our inspections aren't occurring. Training's...


GILBERT: ...Not occurring. The quality assurance teams aren't on-site to make sure that all of those things that are normally in place in this very complex system that we run - those are the redundancies I'm talking about. In addition to that, we are at a 30-year low in staffing of fully certified controllers. So we're already working overtime in most of our facilities, especially in our very high, complex and heavy traffic facilities. So now when you shut down the pipeline, meaning hiring is stopped and training is stopped for the most part, you don't have that new pipeline coming in to relieve this this very short-staffed workforce. In addition to that, we have about 2,000 eligible to retire right now out of a very small workforce - 10,500, which I mentioned was a 30-year low. If they were to decide to retire immediately following the shutdown - because many of them aren't able to do that right now because there aren't people in place to process their paperwork - then we feel the effects of being short-staffed. The effects for the flying public on that when we are so critically staffed is capacity. They'll start to see delays when we're not able to staff our radar rooms in our towers across the country. They'll put less planes in the air. They'll keep them further and further apart, so the passengers will then start to see delays.

KING: So some potentially very negative consequences if this keeps going. Your association has been very vocal about believing that this shutdown is a bad thing. Have you heard from the White House? Have you heard from Congress? Has anyone gotten in touch with you and said, we hear your concerns?

GILBERT: We've heard from Congress that they hear our concerns. And we've heard from both sides of the aisle, both the House and the Senate as well. They - we believe they are trying to figure this out. Unfortunately, time is critical. And we need them to do what they can to negotiate a resolution in this shutdown now. Our employees and the members that we represent, because our employees at NATCA are also affected without support as well - that they need to not be held hostage to this shutdown. They need to be able to do their job. And then they need to be able to be compensated for the job they are doing.

KING: Will they get back pay? Just quickly.

GILBERT: Those that are working definitely will, at some point, get their back pay. Those that are furloughed - we don't know that yet.

KING: Trish Gilbert is executive VP of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Thanks.

GILBERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.