National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi. (NATCA)
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) wants stable, reliable funding for aviation to ensure that nothing like the 35-day government shutdown that just ended can ever hamstring it again — which might happen in less than three weeks.
Speaking Tuesday at an Aero Club of Washington luncheon in downtown D.C., less than a week after significant delays at major airports helped spur lawmakers to temporarily end the partial government shutdown, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi called for the entire aviation industry to continue that pressure and demand stable funding that isn't beholden to bipartisan agreements.
"Are we ready? Did that cut deep enough? Did it hurt your pocketbook enough?" Rinaldi asked assembled aviation stakeholders.
While the NATCA is happy for the temporary end to the shutdown, Rinaldi expressed no confidence that another shutdown won't begin when the three-week resolution ends on February 15, leaving the industry worse off than before.
"Every threat creates a massive amount of work for the agency and for us, because you don’t know if they’re going to shut down," Rinaldi said. Agencies have to determine who will be deemed "essential" during the partial shutdown and plan for the closure of significant projects and how to put them on hold.
"Now [that the shutdown is over], are we going to start back up on Data Comm and things like that? Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t," Rinaldi said. "Because you have the 15th right in front of you. You’d already have to be preparing to tear it down.”
Because of the looming threat of another shutdown, the government may as well still be closed for the purposes of these long-term projects until long-term funding is secured, Rinaldi said. And once that is the case, there will be such a difficult process getting the efforts back on track that the damage done is difficult to calculate right now.
"The numbers are just preliminary," Rinaldi said. "The estimated cost of the shutdown is $11 billion, with $55 billion of lost economic growth to the [United States' growth domestic product (GDP).] Airlines have said $105 billion was lost. [The U.S. government] paid government workers $90 million a day to stay home."
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated the $11 billion figure, though projects $8 billion to be recouped later in the year. The rest is lost. The $90 million per day — more than $2 billion, in aggregate — refers to the fact that President Trump and Congress passed an act guaranteeing federal employees back pay.
Rinaldi said the NATCA does "not support any one reform model" but has demands of whatever approach is taken.
"We have four core principles that we have lived by since 2012, when we realized that the appropriations process is broken — actually, I wouldn't say the appropriations process is broken as much as I would say Congress and the White House is broken," Rinaldi said. "They just refuse to get along."
Those four goals are as follows:
- To ensure that the front-line workforce and that workforce's relationship with the FAA and its employer are protected.
- To ensure that the safety and efficiency of the airspace system is always the top priority.
- To provide stable and predictable funding to support ATC services, including staffing, hiring, training, preventative maintenance and ongoing modernization.
- To maintain an aviation system that continues to provide services to all the user segments.
"Our current system does not meet any of those core principles," Rinaldi said.
Though he refused to commit to anything beyond examining any proposals that come out of Congress, he did suggest the aviation industry funding its own rainy-day fund that can be used to keep it and its programs running safely and efficiently in the event of government appropriations problems.
"With the airways, money is generated by movement of the airplanes," Rinaldi said. "Why try to remove the airplanes from the system, to restrict that? Use that as a funding stream for modernization [and other efforts.] There was $6.5 billion uncommitted [during the recent shutdown] that could have been used to keep aviation up and running."
The FAA reported that civil aviation generated $1.6 trillion for the U.S. GDP and sustained nearly 11 million jobs as of 2014.
Rinaldi suggested that aviation is too big a money-maker and too crucial an industry to be put out of commission by government infighting. He mentioned that veteran controllers made mistakes they had never before made because of the "distractions" that the shutdown introduced to the environment, and disasters were only averted because other controllers caught them before it was too late.
The shutdown also halted the certification and introduction of new equipment, such as that which is intended to safeguard against incidents such as the near-miss at San Fransisco International Airport in 2017.
"And now, there is a possibility that the agency won’t be able to meet their 2020 mandate of ADS-B," Rinaldi said, referring to the FAA's requirement that aircraft be equipped with ADS-B equipment by 2020 to fly in American airspace.
"The pressure and extra stress that this shutdown put into the national airspace system is intense," Rinaldi said. "The effects of the shutdown on all our technology and programs will be felt for years."
He said that unpaid workers are expected to get two weeks' or so worth of pay in the coming week to tide them over until proper pay calculations are completed, but the fear of another shutdown is still real. While the end of the shutdown and the passage of the act ensuring worker payment rendered some parts of the NATCA's lawsuit against the U.S. government "moot," according to Rinaldi, some parts are still valid and he said that the union is in talks with its lawyers about how to proceed.
One of the biggest worries for the NATCA concerns workers. The field is at a 30-year low in certified controllers and one-fifth of the workforce is at retirement age, Rinaldi said. He worries that the uncertainty and drain caused by the shutdown might push more to retire than would otherwise have considered it — and because training and certification processes were halted by the furlough, there is nobody to replace them.
“If 20% of them go," Rinaldi said. "We will not be able to run the volume of traffic that we run today.”