Reporter's Notebook

Shutdown Notebook
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Reports about the effects of the 2018-2019 government shutdown.

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America’s Air-Travel System Reaches Its Breaking Point

Passengers wait at La Guardia Airport in 2014 Carlo Allegri / Reuters

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.

They could have made the deal at this point: On December 12, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer meet with Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the Oval Office. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

On December 19 of last year, as reported here, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution to keep the government funded and avoid a shutdown, while postponing decisions about “the wall” until later on. At the time there was every indication that Donald Trump’s administration had agreed to the deal. As a CNN story reported:

“Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, the current no. 2 highest-ranking Senate Republican, predicted on Wednesday that Trump would sign it. ‘He will sign a clean CR,’ Cornyn told CNN.”

But then the next day, December 20, after criticism from Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, various Fox News figures, and others that Trump was being “weak” and a “loser” by agreeing to the deal, Trump changed his mind. And the shutdown, with all its damage, would soon begin.

On January 25, Donald Trump agreed to the same deal he could have had five weeks earlier, without a shutdown. (For The Atlantic, David Graham explains that reality here; Russell Berman here; and Alex Wagner here.) From all the carnage of the past five weeks, he gained exactly nothing.

The hundreds of thousands of families under financial strain; the disruption of long-term scientific projects; the damage to the national parks  — these and  other consequences of the shutdown were all for … nothing.

By many accounts (e.g. this), Donald Trump did not understand enough about the mechanics of the government to recognize what a shutdown might do, or why the political fundamentals of his confrontation with the Democrats were skewed against him.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did understand all of that — and could have curtailed the damage any time in the past few weeks by allowing the Senate to vote on a “clean CR,” a measure to end the shutdown and defer debates on the wall. Since the beginning of the new congressional session this month, all signs have been that such a measure would pass the Senate (as Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, eloquently argued two weeks ago).

But McConnell refused all requests to let the Senate vote. As with Trump’s December 20 flip, from support of a compromise bill to dead-set opposition, his stand affected countless Americans. And was for nothing.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican majority leader of the Senate, with reporters after passage of the bill to reopen the government, on January 25. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

That the turmoil of the past five weeks was all for “nothing,” in policy terms, is what I argued in a post earlier today. After all the disruption to individual lives and collective services and well-being, Donald Trump accepted the same deal that had been available as of December 19.

Two readers write in to challenge the “nothing” assessment. First, from a former federal employee:

Your post suggesting that the shutdown accomplished nothing was true substantively; the legislation ending the shutdown could have been passed before it took place.  

But it missed the vital political point.  Donald Trump became accustomed to Congressional servility over the last two years; and he clearly expected to extort the same attitude going forward, as if the Republican defeat in the 2018 elections never happened….

It was necessary to demonstrate to Trump and his supporters that conditions have changed, and that the governing process is going to be different — including the futility of attacking government itself as a means of achieving political goals.  That lesson will be essential for future issues, including appropriations bills and the debt limit.  

The shutdown was the price of Trump's tuition; and the federal workers who suffered from it — and whose actions helped to end it — achieved something valuable for the country.