Canadian air traffic controllers send pizzas to U.S. counterparts working without pay

Sometimes, solidarity has a soft crust and a layer of melted cheese.

Air traffic controllers in the U.S. must stay on the job under partial government shutdown

'Thanks to our friends to the north at Moncton Center for the pizza,' read a caption on NATCA New England's Facebook page. (NATCA)

Air traffic controllers from Atlantic Canada directed a fleet of special arrivals into the New York Air Traffic Control Centre on Friday night, as a gesture of solidarity and respect.

And each was covered in a layer of gooey melted cheese.

The Canadian Air Traffic Control Association units in Gander, N.L., and Moncton, N.B., ordered pizzas for all of their colleagues at the control centre on Long Island, who have been working without pay since the partial U.S. government shutdown began on Dec. 22.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants $5.7 billion US to build a border wall with Mexico, and says he won't put through a bill to cover the cost of operating parts of the government until he gets it. The Democrats have put forward a funding bill, but don't support the wall. 

"It's been so overwhelmingly negative and it's nice to see that there's solidarity out there. There's people out there who are just saying, 'Hey, I work with you as a friend or a colleague and here's a nice gesture of friendship, that we care,'" said David Lombardo, a former air traffic controller who lives in Long Island and runs a social media site for people in the industry.

He posted a notice to Reddit ​about the impending pizza arrival seen in the hallways of the New York control centre. 

"Aviation is a really tight-knit group of people, it's like a family. And plus, it goes against the whole rhetoric here that we're talking about because it's an international boundary!"

Air traffic controllers in Cleveland enjoy pizza from their counterparts in Toronto. Workers at the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center also enjoyed pizza from the Winnipeg Area Control Centre. (Jessica Breyer/Submitted)

Air traffic controllers provide essential services and are unable to suspend work or take any other job action during the government shutdown, he said. As a result, with no other government services running, they're working without paycheques.

"They're worried about their mortgages, their medical bills. It's one thing to have a date set and say, 'Hey you're going to get your back pay in a week or two,' but they have absolutely no idea when they're going to get paid, And you can imagine that's pretty disheartening and pretty scary for many people."

Sometimes solidarity comes with a soft crust and a layer of melted cheese. (Dave Lombardo/Reddit)

According to Doug Church, deputy director of public affairs with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) in the U.S., there are currently 14,000 controllers working without pay.

And they're thrilled about the pizzas.

"It's just a really good shot in the arm of positive energy and positive emotion to know that, 'Hey they've got our back,'" he said.

"On behalf of the entire NATCA and air traffic control around this country, we extend our thanks and our gratitude."

Doug Church of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said he appreciated the 'positive energy' that came with the pizza gift. (CBC)

A concerted, Canada-wide pizza delivery

The pizza-delivering task force from the Gander and Moncton crews is part of a national effort on behalf of Canadian air traffic controllers to show support for their American counterparts, said Peter Duffey, president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association (CATCA). 

Duffey said local unions have been asking the national union what they could do to help since the U.S. government shutdown began. On Thursday evening, controllers in Edmonton had the idea to send pizzas across the border to controllers in Alaska.

It snowballed from there. As of Sunday morning, Canadian units have sent pizzas to 35 different units in the U.S.

"This is as grassroots as it gets, with our members just jumping on board this like crazy," he said. "I couldn't be more proud of what my members are doing."

'We're all taking care of the skies over North America'

Duffey echoed Lombardo's sentiment that air traffic controllers keep each other close, even though they don't work side-by-side and often only hear each other's voices in headsets.

"We always stand together, especially with our American counterparts," he said. "Our members just want to reach out to those people that they consider to be co-workers. We're all taking care of the skies over North America."

Canadian air traffic controllers have been sending pizzas to control towers and centres in the U.S. to show solidarity with their American colleagues, who are working for free. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The nature of the job also builds a strong bond, he said.

"We always say that we have to be 100 per cent correct, 100 per cent of the time, with zero room for error. That's the nature of our job. To have somebody have to report to work with the added pressure of knowing they're now into their second period of work with no paycheque, they don't need that kind of added stress and pressure. We just want to send them a message that says, 'Hey we're with you, we stand with you, and we're sorry that this is happening to you.'"

Church agreed that the current working conditions only made a tough job tougher.

"We hold our aviation system and the safety of it in a very high regard and treat it with the utmost professionalism. It's very painful to see that system suffer because of political dispute and it really needs to end now."

It was tasty pizza

Lombardo said the shipment from the Gander and Moncton units were the first evidence he saw of the pan-Canadian pizza effort, but that he knew there were a lot of pies being ordered from north of the border.

Gander, he said, may be a small town in a small province, but they play a big role in the skies.

"They have a massive chunk of airspace that they handle," he said. "They're well-known for being very, very important in the aviation world, and it's so nice to see them care about everyone else around them."

They may now be known for having good taste in pizza, too. Reddit users responded to Lombardo's post asking about the pizza place the Gander and Moncton crews chose — Gino's of Ronkonkoma — he assured them the folks at the New York control centre had a good feed.

"It's really good pizza," he wrote. "And this is Long Island. Believe me, we are pizza perfectionists."

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Megan Mccleister