Government shutdown impacting air traffic controllers

SAN BRUNO, Calif. (KGO) -- If you or a family member are taking a flight any time soon, you'll want to hear this. A warning is out that the federal government shutdown is making the air traffic control staffing crisis even worse.

The number of fully-certified air traffic controllers has dropped to a 30 year low, and the shutdown is not helping the problem.

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Call the student hotline at the FAA's air traffic controller academy in Oklahoma City and you'll hear the impact of the government shutdown-- "There has been no resolution to the funding lapse."

The school is closed.

"They sent all the instructors home," SFO Controllers Union President Frederick Naujoks tells Dan Noyes. "The students that were out there are in limbo status."

SFO's air traffic controller union president says not only is the academy closed, new candidates have had to stop their on-the-job training in the Bay Area.

"A lot of the training that they have to do is by the staff support specialists that are now on furlough status," says Naujoks. "The simulators are shut down, there's a simulator facility in Oakland where people go to train, that's shut down."

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Fred Naujoks tells us there are about 10,500 certified air traffic controllers across the country, but they need 2,000 more, and another 2,000 are retiring this year.

That worries Carol Pacas, who lives right in SFO's flight path.

"We are on the flight path and one of these days, something's gonna happen," says Pacas.

The federal government even installed double-pane windows and patio doors at her condo because of the noise. Now, with the staffing shortage, controllers are being forced to work overtime and sixth days. Carol is worried about someone making a mistake, before more controllers get hired after years of training.

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"If it takes years and they have nobody ready to take over, are you expecting the people who working now to work six days for years until they get new people on board," asks Pacas. "That's insanity, I'm sorry."

Because of the shutdown, the FAA's media office has been reduced to one person, but he emailed the I-Team, "The nation's airspace is fully safe and operational. Although the Oklahoma City Training Academy is currently closed during the partial shutdown, we will not speculate on the potential impact if the shutdown were to continue for a lengthy period of time."

But for an I-Team report in October, East Bay Congressman Mark DeSaulnier told us the air traffic controller shortage is a matter of life and death.

"It takes a tragedy too often to say now we've got to fix this," said DeSaulnier. "I don't think we should wait for a tragedy."

While the air traffic controllers are the tip of the spear for safety and are on the job, many others -- special assistants who handle quality assurance and engineers -- have been furloughed.

Take a look at for a look at more stories by Dan Noyes and the ABC7 News I-Team here.
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