After more than a month, the government shutdown has ended… temporarily. Why am I writing about this on an airline industry blog? Well, because the reason for its ending appears to be air travel-related. Now the industry needs to remain united to ensure that this doesn’t happen again
if when the temporary funding expires on February 15.
I don’t need to rehash just how bad this shutdown has been for the entire country on every level. But for air travel, the impact was particularly acute. Not only were thousands upon thousands of people in the industry forced to go unpaid while the government spat continued, but there were broader public impacts as well.
- Delta had to delay the start of flying for its new A220s. Though the delay was relatively minor since the government is back open now, had it dragged on longer there could have been a bigger impact with canceled flights or downgraded service.
- Southwest can’t start Hawai’i flying until the Federal Aviation Administration signs off, and that means higher fares and fewer options for travelers until the airline can gain FAA approval.
- Paine Field, north of Seattle, had to delay the start of commercial service, forcing booked travelers to go back to Seattle.
- Federal inspectors were not being paid, reducing the amount of effective oversight on the industry.
- Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers didn’t get paid. Sick calls rose and some airports (Atlanta) suffered through long lines.
- Air traffic controllers didn’t get paid. Staffing shortages started piling up last Friday causing significant flight delays in New York and Atlanta.
Pretty much everybody in any way even tangentially-related to the airline industry called on the government to stop these shenanigans. We saw normally adversarial airline CEOs and labor unions come together with lobbying groups to tell the government to stop this before it did irreparable harm. It was like watching Independence Day. You only need a good alien invasion to get all humans working together. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.
The President refused to budge unless he got money for his border wall, but last Friday, he caved. Why? In its coverage of the deal to reopen the government, the Associated Press explained:
The breakthrough came as LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey both experienced at least 90-minute delays in takeoffs Friday due to the shutdown. And the world’s busiest airport — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — was experiencing long security wait times, a warning sign the week before it expects 150,000 out-of-town visitors for the Super Bowl.
Well, there you go. Of course, federal workers aren’t allowed to strike or engage in any organized labor action. Just ask members of the old PATCO controllers union how that goes. When they struck in 1981, against federal law, they were all fired. While some federal workers might be willing to risk their jobs, most won’t. (And could you blame them?) That combined with controllers and TSA officers having a sense of duty to ensure the safety and well-being of the American people is probably why the system held up as well as it did over this last month.
If labor actions are prohibited, then how did the controllers and TSA officers have an actual impact? That’s easy. They learned the importance of being healthy during the cold and flu season.
We’ve all been in a position before where we’ve been sick, but we’ve come to work anyway because we knew things had to get done. But if you weren’t getting paid, would you feel as much pressure to push yourself and come in to work? I know I wouldn’t. Most of the country is seeing widespread flu activity according to the CDC as we approach the traditional peak of the season. Sick calls appear to have been ramping up in tandem with the flu peaking, something that just so happens to coincide with the government shutdown.
TSA calls spiked, and we know that Atlanta saw the biggest pain. With the Super Bowl around the corner, could you imagine how bad that would look if lines were hours long? Then there are the controllers, which had less of an impact until last Friday. The Air Current reported that there was an unofficial sickout, and I think one anonymous controller’s quote says it well.
I would never imply that we’re going to abuse sick leave… however it is cold and flu season and our contractual perceptions regarding sick leave still apply, so I personally wouldn’t be surprised if people’s self assessment regarding their fitness for duty becomes much more stringent.
Of course it’s not just cold and flu. Not getting paid puts tremendous mental stress on a person, and if a controller isn’t fit for duty for mental reasons, he or she needs to report in sick in order to make sure that safety isn’t compromised. The shutdown went on long enough that I have to assume people’s mental states started deteriorating as they had to worry more and more about how they’d pay their bills. And things came to a head on Friday. That appears to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Now the government is back open again, but it’s only for a short time. While President Trump gave up on keeping the government closed until he got his border wall funding, he only gave up temporarily to deflect all the negative coverage he was receiving. Once February 15 comes around, if there’s no deal, then what happens?
If the government shuts down again, we’ll be back in a world of hurt just as we were before. If that happens, let’s just hope that cold and flu season really takes its toll swiftly. After all, as we learned on Friday, if the air travel system is disrupted, then that forces our leaders to do their jobs.