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Economy & Business

St. Louis Air Traffic Controllers Deal With Shutdown And Short Staff

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Monthly passenger traffic at St. Louis Lambert International Airport surpassed 1.3 million in November. That's up from roughly 1.2 million in November 2017.

Many federal workers in the St. Louis region are dipping into their savings and cutting spending as they cope with uncertainty from the partial government shutdown.

That includes air traffic controllers at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

“We’re toughing it out,” said Allison Schwaegel, who heads the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

“We kind of thought once the new Congress comes about, it will come to an end quickly. And here we are, it’s dragging out,” she said.

It’s the longest government shutdown ever in the U.S — and that is taking a toll on Schwaegel, her husband and their two children.

“We had to take our first chunk of money out of savings. And that hurt,” she said.

Some financial institutions are offering no-interest loans to help federal workers affected by the shutdown — but who are required to work — get through until the paychecks resume.

The political standoff in Washington over President Donald Trump’s effort to fund a border wall comes as the air traffic control system is dealing with a national worker shortage.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association reports the number of certified controllers is at a 30-year low.

The shutdown will not help increase those worker levels. It has forced the Federal Aviation Administration’s training center in Oklahoma to close. Simulator training at facilities throughout the country has also been suspended.

The tower at Lambert International is operating with 15 certified controllers, but all support workers have been furloughed.

The local NATCA chapter passed out information about the shortage of controllers and the impact of the shutdown to air travelers at Lambert last week and is hoping to hold similar events if the shutdown continues to drag on.

Many Transportation Security Agency screeners across the country have not been showing up for work during the shutdown, even though they are considered essential employees along with air traffic controllers.

Schwaegel is convinced her colleagues will not follow the actions of those TSA workers.

“The job has to get done one way or the other,” Schwaegel said.

“The way we fight our fight is to educate people and bring attention to the situation,” she added.

She also pointed to the dedication of her colleagues at Lambert.

A snowstorm hit the area on what was the first day without pay for many federal workers. Some of them went to great lengths to make sure the tower would continue to operate during the storm and the partial federal shutdown.

“Three people spent the night there, knowing that they’re not getting a paycheck,” she said.

Follow Wayne Pratt on Twitter: @WayneRadio


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