Sep 29, 2023 - Economy

A government shutdown could have long-lasting air travel consequences

Illustration of a queue of airport stanchions and rope in the shape of the U.S. flag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Even a relatively brief government shutdown could exacerbate an ongoing air traffic controller shortage, with potentially serious operational and safety implications.

Why it matters: Air travel is skyrocketing post-pandemic — the Federal Aviation Administration predicts more than 54,200 flights next Thursday, Oct. 5, ahead of the holiday weekend, which would make it the busiest travel day of the year so far.

  • That's a lot of airplanes straining a system suffering from significant air traffic controller shortages.

The big picture: Many of the country's most critical air traffic control facilities — like Westbury, New York's vital New York approach — remain stubbornly below FAA staffing targets.

  • At least some of that problem is a long-tail effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which classroom and on-the-job controller training was halted or slowed.
  • Meanwhile, existing controllers had fewer airplanes to work amid an overall air travel slowdown, making it harder to maintain proficiency. Plus, some newly minted controllers are now working in a high-volume real-world environment for the first time.

What's happening: There have been an alarming number of near-misses in recent months, which some experts have attributed to the controller shortage.

  • "No doubt getting to [controller] proficiency is an issue in the system," Southwest Airlines CEO Robert Jordan recently told Axios' John Frank.
  • The shortage has left many controllers working overtime, which typically comes with extra pay, but can take a toll on schedules and morale.
  • The FAA hit its goal of hiring 1,500 new controllers this year, it announced last month — but a decent chunk, typically around 20%, are likely to wash out at some point in their training.

Between the lines: The FAA has been taking some extra steps to address the controller shortage.

  • It's making it easier for airlines to fly fewer but larger planes in and out of key airports in the Northeast, for example — thereby reducing the overall volume of flights controllers there must work.
  • And it recently issued an unusual call for applications from wannabe controllers around the Westbury area, which promised successful trainees placement at that facility. (Entry-level controllers typically have only limited control over where they're assigned, a significant barrier for those unwilling to move for their job.)

Reality check: While those efforts can help somewhat, they might be all for naught if there's even a brief government shutdown — which will happen if lawmakers don't reach a deal before the end of the federal fiscal year, Sept. 30.

What they're saying: A shutdown "would mean we would immediately have to stop training new air traffic controllers and furlough another 1,000 controllers who are already in the training pipeline," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during a Wednesday press conference.

  • "And want to emphasize that the complexity of the hiring and training process means even a shutdown lasting a few days could mean we will not hit our staffing and hiring targets next year."

Of note: Existing controllers would be made to work through any shutdown — but without regular paychecks, Buttigieg noted.

  • "And I want you to imagine the pressure that a controller is already under every time they take their position at work, and then imagine the added stress of coming to that job from a household with a family that can no longer count on that paycheck," he said.

The bottom line: There's no lack of interest in controller jobs; more than 12,000 people recently applied for fewer than 2,000 openings.

  • The trick is turning enough of those applicants into trained controllers — and a shutdown would complicate what's already a difficult training process that many trainees don't survive.
Go deeper