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Aviation unions: the shutdown is making flying less safe

“We cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play.”

New Communications System Demonstrated At Miami Int’l Airport Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Unions representing aviation workers issued a dire statement Wednesday about the effects of the government shutdown: Air travel faces an “unprecedented” safety threat.

“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,” wrote the presidents of the unions representing air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants.

The 34-day government shutdown is the longest in American history, and more than 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay, including air traffic control and Transportation Security Administration workers. Federal employees will miss their second consecutive paycheck on Friday, and fewer aviation workers are showing up to work after nearly a month working without pay.

“As union leaders, we find it unconscionable that aviation professionals are being asked to work without pay and in an air safety environment that is deteriorating by the day,” the unions wrote. “To avoid disruption to our aviation system, we urge Congress and the White House to take all necessary steps to end this shutdown immediately. “

It’s the unions’ job to represent aviation workers’ interests — and the shutdown is directly affecting the livelihoods of air traffic controllers, who, unlike pilots and flight attendants, are federal employees. The joint statement said air traffic control staffing was at a 30-year low. But it’s clear that the shutdown is starting to have a crippling impact on the whole aviation industry. Some airports have closed security checkpoints in major cities such as Atlanta and Washington, DC, according to a report by Leslie Josephs for CNBC. Air marshals, FBI agents, inspectors, and law enforcement officers are also not receiving pay for their hours. Airlines reportedly have lost $105 million in revenue in the first month of the shutdown, according to a New York Times report by Zach Wichter.

TSA workers were promised a bonus for working without pay, but they haven’t received that money, as Aditi Shrikant reported for Vox:

On January 11, the TSA announced that it would provide a day’s worth of pay to those who were on duty the day the shutdown was announced, plus a $500 bonus for working over the holiday season. As of the evening of January 16, however, no employees have received the bonus and some haven’t gotten their full day’s worth of pay. If this money ever arrives, it may help with the collective $438 million worth of mortgage and rent payments unpaid federal employees owe this month, but it still isn’t much.

The letter also points out that stalled operations have halted hiring and training processes for air traffic control — an agency already in dire need of new staff. According to the letter, 20 percent of air traffic controllers are eligible to retire and may take this chance to leave work permanently if they are forced to keep working without pay.

The unions’ statement said the “situation has changed at a rapid pace” and “pre-shutdown safety levels cannot be achieved as long as the shutdown lasts.”