Safety in the airspace around Aspen will not be compromised during the partial shutdown of the federal government, the local union representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association reiterated on a snowy weather Sunday.
But Matthew Schlottman, air traffic controller at Sardy Field, said the federal workers’ “lifestyles are being compromised” as the shutdown heads into its third week.
Schlottman said it’s been business as usual in the tower during the just finished holiday season, which handled up to 16 arrivals and 16 departures per hour when weather permitted and during the daylight hours. Factoring in a 30-mile radius and an airspace up to 21,000 feet the controllers can potentially oversee 300 operations in a single day, he said.
Sometimes, when foul weather strikes, work in the tower “becomes less challenging because we don’t have planes flying in. It depends on how bad the weather is. It’s a very complicated question,” he said.
Controllers in the Aspen tower prepare all year to work during the busiest time at Aspen Pitkin County Airport. But only some are prepared to weather the storm of delayed pay.
“All of our training is geared to the busy season,” Schlottman said. He added that the federal employees have remained consummate professionals regardless of the circumstances beyond their control and that, “Safety is never going to be compromised.”
The Aspen tower is now fully staffed with 15 controllers, none of whom have been paid for their work since the government shutdown started Dec. 22. Instead, they are receiving IOU’s that indicate “We will pay you at some point in time when the government reopens,” he said.
The stalemate continued over the weekend as President Trump and leading Democrats couldn’t bridge the chasm between his $5.7 billion border wall and the Democrats’ offer of $1.3 billion for border security.
Schlottman, 30, said there are staffers who have some savings they can use to get through a few weeks with delayed pay but allowed that many people “live paycheck to paycheck.”
“It’s unnecessary stress for the workers,” he said.
Between seven and 10 controllers, and one supervisor, work the shifts each day and there are three to five controllers in the tower at any one time, he said. The tower is staffed from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m., after which time the Denver ATC in Longmont takes over the airspace until 11 p.m.
Under federal law, air traffic controllers are not allowed to strike, an outgrowth of President Ronald Reagan’s firing of more than 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization who walked off the job in 1981.
Today the union members are represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) who are cognizant of their forebears’ history.
A local federal employee, who does not work at the airport and requested anonymity, decried the use of workers as pawns during what he said were politically motivated government shutdowns.
“A federal job once promised an avenue to serve this country, earn a decent wage and a secure retirement. All of this is now being challenged by a handful of inept leaders.” The person asked rhetorically how the nation will continue to attract citizens for public service.
“Essential federal employees are required to report for duty and serve their key roles, without pay, indefinitely, until the quagmire between the elephants and donkeys is sorted out. We are promised a ‘check is in the mail’ once a budget is agreed upon, until then, we must stay the course, standing to serve our country and attempting to save face for those in DC who have yet to empty their bladders.”
Beyond late pay, Schlottman said there’s a long term impact that could very well be felt through a controller shortage that’s at its worst point in 30 years. All training at the air traffic control academy in Oklahoma City has been halted until further notice, which could put the government further behind in recruiting these necessary workers.