Looming federal shutdown would impact air traffic controllers amid ongoing staffing shortage

The busy holiday travel season may be over but now aviation officials are facing some new turbulence.

The federal government could run out of transportation funding in less than three weeks and that means there could be more disruptions.

Currently, there are almost 11,000 air traffic controllers nationwide. They guide pilots during takeoff and landing and manage planes coming into and out of the airspace.

But if the federal government runs of money on January 19, their jobs would be in a holding pattern.

“The idea that you would expect them to go do that stressful, demanding job to sit in those towers and in those centers, not getting paid with that added stress is unacceptable,” said Sec. Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Department of Transportation.

There’s also a shortage of these workers. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg wants to hire 1,800 new controllers this year alone. But he warns a shutdown would ground those efforts.

“We need to be doing more, not less with hiring controllers with training them, and with the technology and equipment that they need to do their job,” said Buttigieg.

Airlines are raising concerns too. Airlines For America (A4A), which represents some of the major carriers, sent a letter to federal transportation officials about staffing challenges during the holidays. In it, A4A’s President wants “...all possible steps be taken to avert additional staffing triggers, particularly in high volume centers.”

Back in December, aviation officials told us safety is a priority.

“We will make sure that safety is always above efficiency so if there is a shortage of air traffic controllers, we would reduce traffic to accommodate and to make sure everyone is traveling safely,” Michael Whitaker, chief of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Air traffic controllers also often work long hours leading to fatigue for many workers. The FAA recently launched a new board to identify possible risks and come up with solutions.

Transportation isn’t the only agency at risk if there’s shutdown. Military construction, veterans’ affairs, housing and the energy department would be affected too. The rest of the federal government remain funded until February 2.