The national air transportation system is way too important to let heedless politicians keep disrupting it.
Back in the day, Congress held timely budget and appropriations hearings, legislation got marked up and passed before the 11th hour, and most elected officials were serious about making sure “the people’s business” got done.
But of course that was before House and Senate leaders decided to permit live radio and television coverage of floor action in the Capitol. Each chamber started moving in that direction in the mid-1970s. The first government shutdown began Sept. 30, 1976 and lasted for 11 days. Coincidence?
A government shutdown is an open-ended period when elected officials – who are still getting paid! – posture and preen, and taxpayers are compelled to keep paying taxes for services they are not receiving. The latest and longest (35 days) began Dec. 22 because President Trump and congressional Democrats were fighting over funding for a wall at the Mexican border.
Some 800,000 federal workers were furloughed. Tens of thousands of federal employees – including TSA screeners and FAA air traffic controllers – were forced to work even though they were not being paid. Some TSA workers began calling in sick, telling reporters they didn’t have enough money to buy gas to drive to work. Absenteeism among the controller workforce also was rising, but air traffic was still moving.
Tensions were mounting, but the politicians remained at an impasse. No one knew how long the government shutdown might last.
Then dramatically, on Friday January 25, President Trump announced a short-term agreement with Congress to fund all government operations through Feb 15, and quickly get federal workers their back pay. (January 25 just happened to mark the second consecutive missed payday for furloughed air traffic controllers.)
Earlier that day, flight delays and cancellations had begun building in the Northeast, with airports in the New York area particularly affected. The cable news channels were showing airport terminals filling up with disgruntled passengers and reporting LaGuardia was closed to arriving flights. The problem, according to FAA, was staffing shortages at Air Route Traffic Control Centers near Jacksonville, FL and Washington, D.C., which forced re-routing of flights between Florida and the Northeast.
President Trump is known for many things – a preference for long, red neckties, a short attention span, a unique coiffure, a voracious appetite for cable news programming … and a propensity for reacting to what he just watched. Do you suppose the sight of all those stranded passengers and parked airplanes was the final catalyst convincing Trump to break the impasse and get everyone back to work?
It would only be fitting if a few stressed-out controllers calling in sick that Friday were the lever that compelled our national political leaders to cut a deal and re-open the government.
The aviation industry and its employees had been suffering since Day 1 of the shutdown. Manufacturers were unable to get new products certificated. NTSB did not have staff to investigate accidents. Training of new air traffic controllers – who are urgently needed to buttress a chronically under-staffed workforce – was suspended. The list was painfully long.
By February 15, Trump seemed poised to sign a bill Congress passed overwhelmingly, restoring funding to FAA through September 30.
But the shutdown made one thing clear: it is absolutely reckless and stupid for politicians to keep disrupting the safest air traffic control system in the world. Heaping needless worries about their paychecks on the backs of a dedicated workforce already dealing with constant job stress is cruel and dangerous.
The president, Congress, and millions of air travelers dodged a bullet for 35 days. If the venal politicians pull the rug out from under air traffic controllers and TSA screeners again, the entire country should start raising unmitigated Hell. BAA