Opening Statement by NATCA President Paul Rinaldi
Before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation & Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Hearing (“Putting U.S. Aviation at Risk: The Impact of the Shutdown” on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019)
Now, let's turn to the panel. I want to welcome our witnesses, Mr. Paul Rinaldi, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, ALF-CIO, Mr. Mike Perrone, National President of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, Mr. Nicholas E. Calio, President/CEO of Airlines for America, Ms. Sara Nelson, International President, Association of Flight Attendants, CWA, and Mr. Pete Bunce, President and CEO of General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Thank you for being here today. We all look forward to your testimony. I'm going to ask you now to consent that our witness' full statements be included in the record. Without objection, so ordered, and since your written testimony has been made part of the record, the subcommittee requests that you limit your oral testimony to five minutes.
We'll proceed with testimony, starting with Mr. Rinaldi.
Thank you Chairman Larsen, Ranking Member Graves, Chairman DeFazio, and Ranking Member Graves. Thank you for the opportunity to testify about the negative effects of the 35 day shutdown. On the members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, everyday over 70,000 flights and 2,000,000 passengers move through our national air space system. Although it's the safest system in the world, during the shutdown many of our programs that reduce the risk and enhance the safety of the system have come to a complete stop. At the time of the shutdown finally ended, I believe the system was on the verge of unraveling.
Even though the system is safer today than it was during the shutdown, it is still less safe than it was before the shutdown. The shutdown eroded critical layers that are necessary to support and maintain the safety of the National Airspace System. For example, programs to prevent wrong surface landings were paused. Each year we have more than 200 events in which aircraft lands, attempts to land on wrong runways, taxiways or even, believe it or not, the entirely wrong airport. Most recently, last week at Philadelphia International Airport a flight was cleared to land on runway 35 but it had lined itself with the parallel taxiway of taxiway echo.
A runway safety enhancement called ATAP alerted the controller immediately who instructed the pilot to execute a go around. The pilot overflew two commercial airplanes on the taxiway by 600 feet. ATAP is deployed in six airports across this country. Prior to the shutdown, the FFA has scheduled to deploy ATAP at 13 major additional airports by the end of March. That implementation is now delayed to the end of June. In addition, the FAA has stopped addressing the risk identified through our voluntary safety reporting program, ATSAP. ATAP and ATSAP are just two of dozen programs that now significantly delayed and were not functioning correctly during the shutdown. That's what makes the system less safe today.
Mr. Chairman, on January 25, travels experienced delays due to decreased capacity, because the system is complex and interconnected, when delays at one facility it ripples across the entire system. On that day, a small number of controllers in critically staffed areas at two facilities, individually determined they were not fit for duty. NATCA did not coordinate these absences. This was a result of illness and the stress of working over a month without getting paid and not knowing when you're going to get paid. NATCA does not condone or approve any federal employee participating in coordinating activity that negatively affects the capacity of the National Airspace System.
Mr. Chairman, the pressure and the extra stress that was inserted into our National Airspace System because of the shutdown was intense. We were getting text messages from controllers with 17 years worth of experience making mistakes on routine clearances, climbing airplanes into paths of other airplanes at the same altitude, because they were distracted because they were thinking about their mortgage, they were thinking about school payments, car payments, and food. They were thinking about the shutdown. They were fatigued. They were not focused at the task at hand. We had controllers going to work every day, driving Ubers, waiting on tables to take care of their family. We have worked really hard to mitigate distractions and reduce the fatigue in our work environment, but this shutdown increased fatigue and inserted all types of distractions in our control rooms.
Add insult to injury, our workforce still has not been made financially whole. This is completely unacceptable, inserting this type of risk into our system. As you know, we're at a 30 year low of fully certified controllers in the system, of which 20 percent of them can retire at any moment. If 20 percent retire tomorrow because we look at another shutdown, we will not be able to run the volume of traffic we do today. It takes three to five years to mentor an apprentice to become fully certified controller. The FAA had to stop their hiring and shut down the training academy because of this shutdown. Our staffing crisis has exasperated by the shutdown. We need to make sure this never happens again.
I want to thank Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, along with Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell, and the ATO Chief Operating Officer, Terry Bristol, for their leadership through this unacceptable challenge of the National Airspace System. Chairman DeFazio, Chairman Larsen, I applaud you for introducing the aviation funding stability act of 2019, HR 1108. NATCA strongly supports this bill because it meets our four core principles and ensures the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System. It protects the frontline workforce. The bill provides stable predictable funding for our National Airspace System and it gives the ability to continue to provide service to all the users of the aviation committee. NATCA urges all members of congress to support this legislation. I thank you for your time and I look forward to your questions.