When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke to reporters Thursday about what she labeled the “Trump shutdown,” she stressed that a government that is only partially open is “directly related to our security.”
“We’re not paying people who keep us safe,” the speaker said, listing as one example the Transportation Safety Administration agents “who stop bombs from coming onto planes.”
As the record-setting partial government shutdown stretches into its 27th day, Pelosi’s message echoed the concerns of airline industry groups that have pressed for a fully functioning government, citing safety issues.
The TSA acknowledged Thursday that an unusually high number of its agents have been calling in sick because many cannot afford to work without a paycheck. Monday’s call-out rate stood at 7.6 percent, compared with 3.2 percent the year before, according to TSA spokesman Michael Bilello. Wednesday’s call-out rate was 6.1 percent.
There is no definitive proof that flying is less safe during a shutdown. The woman who traveled from Atlanta to Tokyo with a gun in her carry-on luggage earlier this month did so on a day when a normal number of TSA agents were working, the agency said. And earlier this week, the Federal Aviation Administration called about 3,600 employees back to work to address safety concerns.
But some industry insiders say exhaustion and anxiety over missed paychecks could be taking a real toll. A coalition of 34 air travel industry groups sent a letter to President Donald Trump, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week to urge them to end the shutdown, outlining specific concerns regarding staffing, mechanics and other issues.
On Wednesday, a top member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association told CNN’s Poppy Harlow that air travel has become less safe than it was before the shutdown began. Trump has pledged to hold out “as long as it takes” for a spending bill to pass Congress with more than $5 billion for his proposed border wall.
“I would say [flying] is less safe today than it was a month ago, absolutely,” said Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the group, which is suing the Trump administration over the shutdown.
Gilbert explained: “We are working with barebones crews. We have controllers there doing what they do very, very well, but how long can you expect them to do it without all of the systems behind them to keep the system safe? And the planes in the air?”
A NATCA colleague expressed similar worries in an interview with The Washington Post but said definitively that the system is safe. For how long, though, he could not say. One of Gilbert’s concerns was that the people whose job it is to address reports from air traffic controllers over potential safety problems are not working.
“This is a horrible game of chicken that we’re in the middle of, and we need to get out of it,” Gilbert said.
In a Jan. 10 letter addressed to Trump and congressional leaders, heads of the Association of Flight Attendants and Association of Professional Flight Attendants invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in their plea for full government funding. Although paid by individual airlines, flight attendants would be among the first affected by any lapse in safety procedures.
“We serve as the last line of defense in aviation security,” they wrote. “On September 11, 2001, we lost our friends and colleagues while our profession changed forever.”
Calling airline security a “layered approach,” the flight attendants’ representatives said that government agencies are necessary to conduct cybersecurity work and security inspections, and to assess passengers and certify infrastructure.
Capt. Joe DePete, head of the Air Line Pilots Association, has separately written to Trump asking for an immediate end to the stalemate, saying “the disruptions being caused by the shutdown are threatening the safe operations of this network.”
When contacted by HuffPost, though, DePete said in a statement that passengers should not worry.
“At this point, despite the shutdown, flying remains safe because no ALPA member or airline pilot would ever take off if there’s any reason to be concerned about safety,” he said.
Yet, as the shutdown drags on, DePete warned, “some of the programs and processes that help us maintain aviation safety and monitor the system’s integrity are at risk of being weakened.”
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