Air traffic controllers say they are caught in middle of shutdown battle: 'Safety is not a partisan issue'

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The government shutdown so far has meant just inconvenience for air travelers — longer security lines at some airports — but some worry that could change the longer the shutdown lingers on. It’s put the spotlight on a group of people who usually prefer to remain in the background — air traffic controllers.

About 10,000 air traffic controllers continue to work in airports across the country without pay. It’s an inherently stressful job. Even before the shutdown, staffing levels at air traffic control towers have been at a 30-year low, meaning people are often working eight- to 10-hour shifts, sometimes six days a week.

Nick Daniels is an air traffic controller in Ft. Worth who says he generally can manage about 30 different aircrafts at one time during a typical shift. He’s also a member of the air traffic controller’s union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

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“Safety is not a partisan issue,” Daniels said. “We’re caught in the middle of this”

Daniels is hearing about fellow air traffic controllers who are picking up extra work – like doing rides for Uber – before coming in to do their regular shifts at the airport. He’s worried they might be exhausted and stressed before even stepping in the door.

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A second and possibly more overlooked problem is that the controllers are working without their normal support staff.

“I'm seeing things like equipment overheating,” Daniels said.

But the coworkers who would usually handle that kind of issue are sidelined at home. Daniels likens it to a NASCAR race, where the driver is still going round and round, but there’s no pit crew to help out when there’s a flat.

Air traffic controllers are handing out informational leaflets to passengers at airports across the country.

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Daniels has been at it at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport all week. Lawyers for the NATCA also filed a lawsuit to get the government to pay members. A judge in the case declined to issue a temporary restraining order, which would have meant members would be paid. A court date is set for later this month.

In the meantime, Daniels and his coworkers say they’ll keep trying to get the word out to passengers and anyone who will listen.

When the group and DFW initially got a permit to hand out leaflets, it was just for a week. They never imagined that the shutdown would stretch to the next week. They are hoping it ends soon.