Avi­a­tion show­ing strains of shut­down

The Maui News - - FRONT PAGE - By DAVID KOENIG

The par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down is start­ing to strain the na­tional avi­a­tion sys­tem, with un­paid se­cu­rity screen­ers stay­ing home, air­traf­fic con­trollers su­ing the gov­ern­ment and safety in­spec­tors off the job.

Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Air­port is pro­vid­ing the most vis­i­ble ev­i­dence yet that the shut-

down is at least mak­ing air travel less con­ve­nient.

Fac­ing dou­ble the usual num­ber of ab­sences among un­paid TSA screen­ers, the Mi­ami air­port will close one of its con­courses most of to­day, Sun­day and Mon­day to make sure TSA can ad­e­quately staff the re­main­ing se­cu­rity check­points.

Mean­while, the na­tional union rep­re­sent­ing air traf­fic con­trollers — who are also work­ing with­out pay dur­ing the shut­down, en­ter­ing its 22nd day to­day — sued the gov­ern­ment, claim­ing they are il­le­gally be­ing de­nied pay.

And avi­a­tion-safety in­spec­tors are still off the job, deemed not to be es­sen­tial enough to keep work­ing dur­ing the shut­down.

Here is a roundup of re­cent de­vel­op­ments in the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down’s im­pact on air travel.

AWOL SCREEN­ERS

The Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion said that 5.1 per­cent of screen­ers were ab­sent on Thurs­day, up from 3.3 per­cent on the same date last year. The TSA has 51,000 trans­porta­tion-se­cu­rity of­fi­cers, who have con­tin­ued to work be­cause they are deemed es­sen­tial em­ploy­ees.

Screen­ers rep­re­sent just 6 per­cent of gov­ern­ment work­ers who didn’t get pay­checks Fri­day be­cause of the shut­down. Air­line-in­dus­try of­fi­cials worry that they are par­tic­u­larly likely to stop show­ing up be­cause their rel­a­tively low pay means they could quickly strug­gle to pay bills with­out money com­ing in.

Screen­ers start around $24,000 a year, and most earn be­tween $26,000 and $35,000, ac­cord­ing to TSA.

The agency has very few tools to deal with a se­vere short­age. It has a team of nonessen­tial em­ploy­ees who are trained to screen air trav­el­ers, but that is only a stop­gap de­signed to cover for short­ages at air­ports dur­ing a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter.

Jan­uary is a rel­a­tively light travel pe­riod, but in­dus­try of­fi­cials worry what will hap­pen if the shut­down lingers and more TSA em­ploy­ees leave for jobs that in­clude a pay­check.

“TSA only has what it has,” said Christo­pher Bid­well, the vice pres­i­dent for se­cu­rity at the trade group Air­ports Coun­cil In­ter­na­tional-North Amer­ica, “and al­though they have ad­vised us that they are con­tin­u­ing to hire and train, we are very con­cerned about a pro­longed gov­ern­ment shut­down.”

TER­MI­NAL CLO­SURE

Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional, the na­tion’s 25th-busiest air­port, plans to close off Con­course G at 1 p.m. for the next three days and shift a dozen flights a day to other ter­mi­nals.

“Our wait times have been nor­mal and op­er­a­tions have been smooth so far, but the par­tial clo­sure is be­ing done in an abun­dance of cau­tion,” air­port spokesman Greg Chin said Fri­day.

Other ma­jor air­ports sur­veyed by The As­so­ci­ated Press said they had no im­me­di­ate plans to close ter­mi­nals or take other dras­tic mea­sures.

AIR TRAF­FIC CON­TROLLERS

About 10,000 air traf­fic con­trollers un­der the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tinue to work with­out pay. On Fri­day, their union, the Na­tional Air Traf­fic Con­trollers As­so­ci­a­tion, filed a law­suit in fed­eral court in Wash­ing­ton and asked for an or­der that its mem­bers get paid.

Union Pres­i­dent Paul Ri­naldi said there is al­ready a short­age of con­trollers, and if cur­rent con­trollers de­cide to re­tire — about 1,900 are el­i­gi­ble — the gov­ern­ment could be forced to re­strict air traf­fic, cre­at­ing flight de­lays. There is no in­di­ca­tion that is hap­pen­ing yet.

SAFETY IN­SPEC­TORS

About 3,300 avi­a­tion safety in­spec­tors un­der the FAA are not work­ing — since 2013, they have not been con­sid­ered es­sen­tial em­ploy­ees who must stay on the job dur­ing gov­ern­ment shut­downs. They over­see and cer­tify in­spec­tions done by em­ploy­ees of air­lines and air­craft-re­pair shops.

“Our in­spec­tors are the over­sight, they are the reg­u­la­tory side of the house for the FAA,” said Mike Per­rone, pres­i­dent of the Pro­fes­sional Avi­a­tion Safety Spe­cial­ists union. Their work is not get­ting done, he said.

An FAA spokesman said ear­lier this week that the agency is re­call­ing in­spec­tors and fo­cus­ing re­sources on over­see­ing air­line op­er­a­tions. He de­clined to say how many in­spec­tors are work­ing, but union of­fi­cials be­lieve it’s about 100.

“A hun­dred out of 3,300 is prob­a­bly not real good odds,” said Stephen Carl, an FAA in­spec­tor in Florida. “Please put us back on the job right now. Avi­a­tion is not be­ing over­seen.”

Carl said on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions have been put on hold by the shut­down.

HELP­ING OUT

Some air­ports are try­ing to help the un­paid fed­eral em­ploy­ees.

Seat­tle-Ta­coma In­ter­na­tional Air­port or­ga­nized an event with credit unions, util­i­ties and non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions that can help fed­eral em­ploy­ees ob­tain short-term loans and as­sis­tance, said spokesman Perry Cooper.

Tampa In­ter­na­tional Air­port is work­ing with dif­fer­ent agen­cies to set up a food pantry, get bus passes and work with util­i­ties to help hun­dreds of fed­eral em­ploy­ees who may be strug­gling to pay bills.

Pitts­burgh In­ter­na­tional Air­port de­liv­ered lunches to TSA work­ers and air traf­fic con­trollers on Fri­day and plans to do it ev­ery Fri­day un­til the shut­down ends.

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