Could the government shutdown impact air travel safety?

Bill Striffler heads Newark’s air traffic controllers’ union local. It’s an understaffed group that’s already working mandatory overtime six days a week handling the more than 440,000 annual flight operations in and out of Newark airport. The government partial shutdown just raises stress levels at a tower that should have 34 certified controllers but has only 23.

“Well, the morale is starting to take a little bit of a hit, because controllers don’t know when their next paycheck is going to come,” said Striffler. “We are working thin. I’ve worked more overtime this year than I did in my first 11 years at Newark Tower because of it. … My wife is pregnant, and we’re expecting our first baby next week. So the last thing that we want to have to deal with right now is unknown, when we’re going to get paid.”

In a Jan. 3 letter to congressional leaders urging them to reopen government, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association warned, “This shutdown and the resulting furloughs are rapidly eliminating the layers of redundancy and safety on which the National Airspace System is built.” The association representing 61,000 airline pilots sent a similar letter, stating flatly, “… disruptions being caused by the shutdown are threatening the safe operations of this network.”

Disconcerted air travelers at Newark — an airport already notorious for its flight delays — called for a political truce.

“I think it definitely would make everything safer [if they came to a resolution],” said traveler Tifari Barnes.

“Things might slow a little bit, it might lead to an increase in delays, but there’s never going to be a safety issue for the National Airspace System,” said Striffler.

But TSA workers who screen baggage have already been calling out sick nationally and at JFK Airport. At Newark Liberty, a union rep for aircraft cleaners said she’s noticed TSA absenteeism too.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of workers calling out because of the government shutdown,” said Angie Gonzalez, a union representative for 32BJ SEIU. “These are the people that are at checkpoints, they’re the ones that check your baggage, they’re screening, they’re checking passengers.”

The chorus is going to keep growing, and the public pressure saying, ‘Wait, because you’re not figuring this out it’s going to affect me?’ That’s unacceptable,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer.

Gottheimer, a Democrat, noted the shutdown could soon hit people’s pocketbooks, although the White House late Monday removed perhaps the biggest source of possible pain — announcing the IRS will process refund checks, despite the shutdown. But, the federal food stamp program that serves more than 735,000 New Jersey residents could run out of money by mid-February. National Parks are now spending entrance fees to clean up garbage.

Locally, Alementary, a Hackensack microbrewery, can’t get the permit it needs to expand due to the shutdown, which is rapidly the co-owner’s investment.

“Between the rent on the building and the payments on the equipment, I’d say probably $25,000 a month,” said co-owner Michael Roosevelt. “I hope the government reopens very quickly because I don’t have $25,000 a month.”

“I’m sure that if we keep sitting down together, Congress with the administration, we’ll get there and we can make sure we do what we need to do to keep our borders secure,” Gottheimer said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to introduce more bills to fund individual agencies, starting with Treasury, in an attempt to move discussions forward. Currently no new talks are planned.