It’s that time again when the Federal government is on the verge of shutting down. What happens to all of those airline flights and the people that control the skies?
What Is A Government Shutdown?
We should be saying Happy New Year on Friday, October 1, 2021. The Federal government works on a quirky fiscal year that begins each year on October 1 and ends the following year on September 30. In order for the government to function, the Federal Government needs to have a new budget or a continuing resolution in place by October 1. Failure to reach such an agreement results in the Federal government shutting down because they legally can’t pay their bills. Sometimes, a new continuing resolution will be approved as early as October 1 or a shutdown can last from days to weeks to even months. When a shutdown happens, the government will lay off all non-essential employees. Does this include air traffic control?
Air Traffic Control
Imagine being back in the old west and there was no sheriff. The same result would happen in aviation if there was no air traffic control – chaos. I was landing at Cessna 182 at an uncontrolled airport when an airplane entered the active runway for takeoff. The result was an immediate decision to execute a go-around to avoid a collision. The following is an elementary understanding of how air traffic control works. I’ll use Portland International Airport (PDX) as an example. For the pilots out there, please understand this explanation will be very simple in nature and designed for the typical airline passenger.
The control tower is divided into two primary functions – air control (in flight) and ground control (ground taxi). The aircraft boarding door is shut and it is time to go. The pilot will ask and receive permission to taxi and receive taxi instructions. When the aircraft reaches the runway hold-short point, the air traffic side will clear the aircraft to takeoff. The aircraft departs and during the climb out, the pilot will contact Portland Approach (TRACON) for instructions. At some point, the aircraft will be handed off the Seattle Center (ARTCC) until the aircraft approaches the next ARTCC sector. The system will continue through handoffs to other ARTCC sectors if the flight passes multiple sectors. The pilot will repeat in the reverse order when landing at the destination.
The United States is divided up into air traffic control centers. Portland OR (PDX) belongs to Seattle Center.
There are various types of controlled airspace. Aircraft flight will be determined by the airspace and airspace operations it is flying in. The PDX airspace begins at 10 nautical miles from the airport. Pilots are instructed to make initial radio contact with Portland Approach when the aircraft is 20 nautical miles out.
Airport-controlled airspace is determined in distance by blocks of altitude. The diagram below is referred to as the “upside-down wedding cake”.
In addition to separating the aircraft for possible collisions, smaller aircraft require longer trailing distances to avoid dangerous wake turbulence from larger aircraft.
Air Traffic Controllers
Air traffic controllers in the United States are true aviation professionals. With that said, air traffic controllers face:
- Heavy workloads,
- High-stress levels,
- Long hours and few days off,
- Heavy training requirements and
- No room for errors. An air traffic control error could have fatal consequences.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for hiring and training new controllers. The FAA has for years found itself in a constant controller recruitment training and retention problem. The controllers face months of grueling training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, OK. Not everybody is cut out to be a controller. Some fail to complete the Academy training and some quit due to the stress and strain of the job. New controllers are trainees and remain under direct supervision until they can demonstrate to work unsupervised. Unlike most professions, there are controllers that have been in trainee status for years.
What Happens If The Government Shuts Down?
The good news is that air traffic controllers are considered essential employees and will be exempt from furlough layoffs. There is some bad news here. Training new controllers at the FAA Academy will cease. In 2013 when the government shut down for 16 days, it took ten months for the FAA Academy to get up to speed. How long can a government shutdown last? The shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, lasted for 35 days.
The next problem is paying the air traffic controllers during a shutdown. Essential employees who perform work on a day their Federal office is closed during a shutdown furlough will be paid after Congress passes and the President signs a new appropriations bill. This means that these employees will basically be working for IOUs until new funding is approved. If the shutdown is prolonged, there is only so much rent, food, utilities, car expenses that you can pay with an IOU. Ironically, the 2018 shutdown ended when 10 air traffic controllers stayed home causing even more staffing shortages. If this trend continued, it would have crippled the air traffic control system. This would in turn cripple the U. S. economy.
It is my hope that Washington DC can get an agreement in place by Thursday. If the government does shut down, air traffic controllers will still be required to report to work. The air traffic controllers are so vital to the commerce of the United States that they could shut down “the shut down” as they did on January 25, 2019. A short-term shutdown could be manageable. There could be bumpy skies ahead if there would be a prolonged shutdown.