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With Congress and President Donald Trump once again working until the 11th hour to avert a partial government shutdown, labor groups representing Federal Aviation Administration employees warned House lawmakers another shutdown would further harm the agency’s ability to recruit and retain highly skilled staff.
Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s subcommittee on aviation Thursday that some FAA air traffic controllers have still not been “made whole financially” following the end of the previous 35-day partial government shutdown.
“All FAA employees who earned overtime or other types of premium pay during the lapse in government funding will be compensated in future paychecks,” Paul Takemoto, an FAA spokesman, said in an email Thursday.
About 20 percent of all certified professional controllers, Rinaldi added, are retirement eligible.
“If 20 percent retire tomorrow, because we look at another shutdown, we will not be able to run the volume of traffic we do today, he said.
NATCA represents nearly 20,000 FAA air traffic controllers, traffic management coordinators and other air safety professionals.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the full committee, noted that staffing at air traffic control facilities remains at a 30-year low.
“We’re already at a critical point with so many people eligible to retire, by the way,” DeFazio said. “If they say, ‘Wow, retirees got paid, and I didn’t. Maybe it’s time for me to pull the plug,’ they’re not going to be there to train that next generation of air traffic controllers. We’ve got to provide some certainty to those who are working there now and those who want to work there in the future.”
Michael Perrone, the president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, said the FAA and the aviation industry will likely feel the effects of the shutdown “for years to come.” In addition to concerns about retirement, Perrone said some FAA staff may leave for more stable jobs in the private sector.
“Employees trained and certified by the government will look to the private sector for job security,” he said. “Inspectors are fleeing to the private sector and years of experience will be lost. The call to public service may be, as well.”
It takes three-to-five years for the FAA to mentor apprentices to become fully certified air-traffic controllers, but the agency had to shut down its training academy during the lapse in appropriations.
Classes resumed last week at the FAA’s training academy in Oklahoma City. Those classes will be suspended, however, if Congress and the president fail to avoid a government shutdown at midnight Friday.
“There are limited spaces at the academy and we’re concerned that the agency is not going to be able to meet their hiring goals,” Rinaldi said.
The shutdown also delayed the implementation of equipment aimed at preventing wrong-surface landings at 13 major airports. Rinaldi estimated that each year, more than 200 aircraft attempt to land on the wrong runways, taxiways or even the wrong airport.
Instead of installing that equipment by the end of March, the agency has now rescheduled that work for the end of June. Only six major U.S. airports currently have the equipment in place.
DeFazio said he remains “cautiously optimistic” that Trump will sign the spending deal averting a government shutdown.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Wednesday that Trump isn’t “fully happy” with the spending deal House and Senate lawmakers reached this week, but noted that “there are some positive pieces of it.”