America’s Air-Travel System Reaches Its Breaking Point

Passengers wait at La Guardia Airport in 2014 (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Back on January 7, when the government shutdown was a little over two weeks old, I wrote about its predictable effects on the nation’s commercial air-transport system.

For a  little while, things would seem to work more or less as normal, as slack in the system got used up. Then with staffing systems and individual employees under increasing stress from lack of pay, the system would try to protect itself from errors by moving more slowly, cutting the operating pace rather than cutting too deeply into the buffer for safety.

And—as the Air Lines Pilots Association warned back then—at some point the strain on individuals and organizations would become too great, and something would have to go.

On Friday morning, something appears to have given with air traffic around one of the country’s busiest airports, LaGuardia, which was reported to have temporarily closed because of a shortage of air-traffic controllers, with ripple effects on operations especially on the East Coast.

Two days earlier, people with much of the responsibility for keeping the nation’s air-travel system safe, had warned that something like this was practically inevitable, and that prolonged shutdown would soon “break” that system.

On January 23, as the government shutdown moved into its second month, the organizations representing three of the groups most responsible for safe operations of air travel warned that the safety margin is wearing thin.

Those three are: air traffic controllers (via the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers), airline pilots (via the Air Line Pilots Association), and flight attendants (via the Association of Flight Attendants). Of course they’re not the only crucial figures in this safety/industrial ecosystem—others include TSA staffers, baggage handlers, mechanics and maintenance crews, dispatchers, and  others—but they really matter. And their joint statement on January 23 was startlingly clear.

It began, “In our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented.”

Then, some details:

Due to the shutdown, air traffic controllers, transportation security officers, safety inspectors, air marshals, federal law enforcement officers, FBI agents, and many other critical workers have been working without pay for over a month.

Staffing in our air traffic control facilities is already at a 30-year low and controllers are only able to maintain the system’s efficiency and capacity by working overtime, including 10-hour days and 6-day workweeks at many of our nation’s busiest facilities.

Due to the shutdown, the FAA has frozen hiring and shuttered its training academy, so there is no plan in effect to fill the FAA’s critical staffing need. Even if the FAA were hiring, it takes two to four years to become fully facility certified and achieve Certified Professional Controller (CPC) status. Almost 20% of CPCs are eligible to retire today. There are no options to keep these professionals at work without a paycheck when they can no longer afford to support their families. When they elect to retire, the National Airspace System (NAS) will be crippled.

As noted earlier, a deal to keep the government open, and defer discussions about the wall, had won unanimous support from the Senate, with assurances that Donald Trump would sign it—until Trump was mocked from his own right flank (Coulter, Limbaugh, etc) for agreeing to this “weak” compromise. The toll mounts every day—and controllers, pilots, and flight attendants warn that it could get worse.