The Current

Air traffic controllers driving Ubers to cope during U.S. shutdown, says union rep

A union official says air traffic controllers and other flight staff are having to take on second jobs due to the partial government shutdown in the U.S. Is the political deadlock putting air passengers at risk?

Controllers are struggling to make money between their unpaid shifts, says Mick Devine

An American Airlines Embraer ERJ-190AR airplane flies past the Washington, D.C. tower where air traffic controllers continue to work — despite not being paid. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Listen19:36

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Update, 3:00 pm ET: On Friday afternoon, U.S. President Donald Trump announced an agreement with U.S. lawmakers, securing three weeks in stop-gap funding to reopen the government. He said that in the meantime a bipartisan committee of lawmakers would meet to discuss the nation's border security needs.

Original story below:


A union representative warns that the partial U.S. government shutdown has forced air traffic controllers to work second jobs in between shifts where they're responsible for the safety of thousands of passengers.

"The controllers that work at airports are taking up Uber jobs, or Lyft. They are driving as a taxi on the way home from work, on the way to work, in the hours in between the shifts," said Mick Devine, the New England regional vice-president of the National Air Traffic Controller Association.

"They are picking up jobs as waiters and waitresses, as bartenders, as handymen, things of that nature," he told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Devine said the people he represents work in a job where "they have to be right 100 per cent of the time" or tragedy could strike, but that the shutdown has made that more difficult.

"They're not coming to work well-rested, because they've taken second jobs," he said.

"They're not coming to work ... focused on the job, because you've injected a natural distraction, which is: 'How am I going to pay my bills? How am I going to put food on the table?'"

Earlier this month, Canadian air traffic controllers sent pizzas to their American counterparts as a gesture of solidarity, something Devine said was a boost at a time when morale is at "an all-time-low." 

Pizza from Canada has boosted spirits of U.S. airport staff, Mick Devine tells Piya Chattopadhyay. 1:07

The shutdown was in its 35th day Friday, as the deadlock over funding for U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall with Mexico continued. Two bills to end it — one from Republicans, one from Democrats — failed on Thursday. 

Air traffic controllers were among those who must still show up to work, despite Friday being their second payday without a pay cheque. However, the number of people calling in sick had increased.

On Friday, the Federal Aviation Authority halted some flights arriving at New York's LaGuardia Airport due to staffing shortages of air traffic controllers. The FAA warned staff shortages at facilities in New York and Florida could delay flights in other parts of the country.

On Wednesday, 7.5 per cent of agents of the Transport Security Administration were not at work, compared to 3 per cent on the same day last year. Last weekend 10 per cent of TSA agents called in sick.

An electronic paystub dated Jan. 5, 2019, for an air-traffic controller at Reagan National Airport shows a net payment of $0.00.

Victor Payes, a transportation security officer at Los Angeles International Airport, said taking second jobs is contributing to the absences.

"Some folks are really having to concentrate on second jobs, outside of work, as their main job to support their families," said Payes, who is a representative with his local union.

Union leaders representing air traffic controllers, flight attendants and pilots released a statement Wednesday, saying the shutdown was threatening flight and passenger safety.

Devine told Chattopadhyay that "it is still safe to fly, but the system is deteriorating rapidly."

"You're asking controllers, as if they were surgeons, to go ahead and perform surgery in an operating room, but we're going to withhold all your nurses and all your technicians."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from Thomson Reuters. Produced by Howard Goldenthal and Imogen Birchard.

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