By Alex Fitzpatrick
January 24, 2019

As the government shutdown enters its second month and the nation’s air traffic controllers are set to receive their second zero-dollar paycheck in a row, some find themselves stuck between a sense of duty to keep the skies safe and the economic realities of paying the bills and putting food on the table. Meanwhile, some say the economic stress controllers are facing may be threatening aviation safety.

“[My wife] has a part-time job … but I’m typically the one who brings in most of the money for our household,” says Tom Flanary, 31, an air traffic controller in Miami. “Luckily, we have this rainy-day fund that we’ve put together over the years, and we haven’t needed to touch it until now,” he continues. “We’re drawing into that, we’re hitting that pretty hard.”

Flanary’s mortgage company, Wells Fargo, agreed to waive his payments until the government reopens. But he still has a wealth of other bills to manage, including two car payments, insurance and more. “The vast majority of retailers don’t care about, ‘Hey, we’re going to waive your payments,'” he says. “They’re like, ‘When can you pay us?’ And so, even with my savings, almost three months’ salary of savings, it’s still going to be, ‘Ok, crap, if this were to come due right now, we’re screwed.'”

Complicating matters, says Flanary, is that the unpredictable length of the shutdown is making it impossible to accurately budget what’s left of his money. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, you have to save your money for a month,'” he says. “It’s, ‘You have to save your money for an unknown period of time.’ And so we are literally rationing out everything we can do, because if this goes six months, if this goes eight months, what are we going to do?”

People like Flanary are drawn to air traffic control because, while the training is intense and the job high-stakes, it’s often a professionally and financially rewarding career. The average controller salary was $124,540 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And as unionized federal workers, controllers have relatively good benefits and protections compared to other fields.

But their status as federal workers also makes controllers vulnerable to shutdowns like the one we’re in now. They are considered essential federal employees, meaning they have to work during this shutdown, but they won’t be paid until it ends. That puts them in the same financial pickle as many other government workers: because they have to report to their current jobs, they often don’t have time to make supplemental income. And while some controllers, like Flanary, may have put aside some savings, almost 80% of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, according to one estimate, and nearly 1 in 10 of those making six figures do so.

Unlike many federal workers, however, air traffic controllers are responsible for the safety of millions. More than 2.6 million passengers fly into and out of U.S. airports every day, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Controllers are typically an unflappable bunch by professional necessity. But they aren’t totally immune to stress and distractions. The prospect of missed mortgage or rent payments, medical bills and other expenses will take their toll on anybody’s performance.

“Not getting paid for the past 34 days has completely led to distractions in the control room,” says Flanary. “We can all say we’re trying to push it out of our mind, I say I’m pushing it out of my mind, but we’re all human. So when you’re sitting there working airplanes, and you’re thinking in the back of your head, ‘Oh crap, how am I going to pay my electric bill this month, how can I do this, how can I do that,’ and that’s what coming into play now. In an environment where we don’t want distractions at all, we’re having the distractions creep into our mind.”

Aviation experts say those distractions could be dangerous.

“There is a fatigue factor in there,” says Paul V.J. Drechsel, associate professor and assistant chair of the air traffic management program at the University of North Dakota. “We use a lot of simulations, and if an individual has other things on their mind, it might take away from what they’re actually doing.” His graduates “know they have to do a job, they love their job, and they’re working, but they’re just worried about the future,” he adds.

Other controllers pointed out another problem: support staff upon which they rely aren’t working at all.

“There are team members that help us do our job, everything from our military planning specialist to quality assurance officers to our engineers, are not there to help us do our job,” says air traffic controller Daniel Garcia-Barbon, 31. “That’s like having a surgeon do a surgery without a team of nurses around them. So we’re there, but we’re still missing part of our team, and it’s getting extremely difficult. As far as our equipment’s concerned, we’ve gone from ‘fix on fail’ to, now we fix it when the government reopens, which of course isn’t happening.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Union (NATCA), along with the ALPA, a pilots’ union, and the AFA, a flight attendants’ union, published a joint statement Wednesday calling on the White House and Congress to end the shutdown before calamity strikes. “In our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break,” the statement reads. “It is unprecedented.”

“We don’t want to play the safety card, because it’s not about that, we don’t want to scare people,” says Jim Marinitti, southern regional vice president for NATCA. “Most people in the public, they don’t know what we do behind the curtain, and that’s just fine. But right now what’s happening is such a travesty, that it is crossing the line into being unsafe.”

The FAA maintains that air safety isn’t being affected by the shutdown.

“Overall, the traveling public can be assured that our nation’s airspace system is safe,” said an FAA spokesperson. “Air traffic controllers and the technicians who maintain the nation’s airspace system continue working as they fill a critical mission to ensure the public’s safety. We sincerely thank FAA employees — especially the dedication and professionalism of our air traffic controllers, technicians and inspectors — who are working to keep the traveling public and our skies safe.”

The shutdown could be an air travel nightmare for other reasons, too. Controllers say they prioritize safety above all else, and if there aren’t enough of them to manage the typical frequency of flights, they could be forced to increase the time between airplane takeoffs, thereby causing delays. After all, there are only so many fully trained controllers — about 10,500, per NATCA — and they are not easily replaced. Becoming a fully certified controller can take years of classroom and on-the-job training, and many prospective candidates wash out due to the difficulty involved. The shutdown also means the FAA isn’t currently training new controllers, meaning reinforcements will be delayed for months or even years even after the government reopens.

“We’re not going to lower our safety standards, but the efficiencies of the system unfortunately are going to degrade, because we only have so many bodies, and there is no calvary coming,” says Marinitti. “And it’s unfortunate, because it’s unnecessary.”

There’s also the inconvenient timing of Washington’s current impasse. It’s been almost 40 years since President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers who were striking in a bid for better pay, fewer hours and other concessions. Some of the controllers hired to replace them are now at or near retirement age. All told, about 20% of controllers are eligible for retirement, according to NATCA. Should they decide to call it quits, any controller shortage will immediately become far more acute. At least one controller has already reportedly quit amid the shutdown. Still, the FAA spokesperson said that the agency hasn’t seen any “unusual increased absenteeism” or “operational distributions due to staffing,” and no “measurable increase in unplanned air traffic controller retirements or resignations.” (Air traffic controllers are FAA employees.)

The shutdown is also putting on hold a wide range of airspace maintenance and safety upgrades. Most notably, work on a broad range of FAA infrastructure updates and modernizations called NextGen has all but stalled, delaying technology meant to make air travel faster, safer and more efficient. And other federal aviation professionals, including Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners and safety inspectors, are also being affected, further contributing to travelers’ pain and potentially putting flyers’ safety at risk.

Even as the shutdown drags on, it’s unlikely at this point that air traffic controllers will quit en masse. For now, most are sticking to their posts — even if some have to rely on the kindness of friends, family and even their Canadian counterparts to get by. “The air traffic control — I call it a community, because you work so close together all the time,” says Drechsel. “They’re sticking together, and I think they realize too that, I think the public’s on their side. They understand, and they’re getting a lot of publicity, and they appreciate that. They just wish it would end.”

Write to Alex Fitzpatrick at alex.fitzpatrick@time.com.

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