North Texas union reps warn of 'dire' effects government shutdown is having on airline safety

The unions representing air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants warn that they “cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play," and cannot predict "the point at which the entire system will break.”

That’s according to statements published in a letter to the White House and Congress.

One local union representative said the potential impact of the shutdown across the airline industry is at a “breaking point.”

Air traffic controllers pride themselves on maintaining the highest of safety standards, but the stress and fatigue of this shutdown is beginning to take a toll.

Just a month ago, union representatives said the shutdown posed no risk to the flying public.

On Thursday, they changed course, saying that maintaining the workload they're being forced to endure has taken it from difficult to dangerous.

There are about 600 air traffic controllers monitoring all flights into, around, and through North Texas air space.

They are among thousands of employees considered "essential" who have worked more than a month without pay.

"We're at a breaking point," said Terry Donaldson, union representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, who said morale is deteriorating. “It's absolutely horrible! The frustration is completely unbearable."

He says controllers are already working 10-hour days, six days a week, because of a 30-year low in staffing.

"You asked me a few weeks ago, you now, is it still safe to fly?” Donaldson recalled. "This situation is dire. It is not as safe to fly today as it was over a month ago."

Donaldson says one in five controllers are eligible to retire right now, and if the shutdown pushes them to that decision, it would cripple the industry.

"It's going to be a drastic impact on the National Airspace System. You're going to see delays, you're going to see an impact like we've never seen in this country before," Donaldson added.

The DFW union representative for the Allied Pilots Association, Capt. Dennis Tajer, says his organization is very concerned about the effect the shutdown is having on security and operations.

“The airplane doesn't move unless we as pilots say it’s safe and secure,” Tajer said. “That hasn’t, nor will it ever change, but these distractions and stress are fissure cracks that have our deep attention.”

Rudy Garcia, the local representative of the largest federal employee union in the country, said 90 percent of DFW's 1,300 TSA workers are "essential" and also not getting paid.

“[The shutdown] puts the traveling public at risk,” Garcia said. “They depend on these federal agencies for safety at the airport and on the planes.”

Donaldson says air traffic controllers can't simply be replaced immediately. It takes anywhere from two to four years for a controllers to be fully certified. 

And since the shutdown has frozen hiring and closed the FAA academy in Oklahoma, there are no controllers waiting in the wings to replace them.