Here's How Local Air Traffic Control Is Handling Working Without Pay During The Shutdown

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Some of the last people you want stressed and anxious are particularly stressed and anxious right now thanks to the federal government shutdown. The nation's air traffic controllers, who are considered essential employees for public safety, are having to work without pay, with the shutdown on track to become the longest on record.

"We've been here since Day One of the furloughs and the shutdown, providing a service for the national airspace system, uninterrupted, out of sight, out of mind, really, and that's what we expect," said Alex Cisneros, an air traffic controller who handles takeoffs and arrivals at airports across Southern California, including LAX and Van Nuys Airport.

"We want everything to run seamless."

Cisneros stressed that the public has nothing to worry about when it comes to the safety of the skies. But fellow controllers' anxiety and frustration about working without pay is starting to build, "especially as we get closer to payday, which is next Tuesday," he said in an interview with KPCC's Take Two.

As a representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., a union that covers about 20,000 workers across the country, Cisneros said he's been fielding a lot of questions from his fellow air traffic controllers.

Many of them are concerned about whether their medical insurance coverage will continue and their ability to make mortgage payments. One employee even asked him if it was OK to deliver pizzas on the side.

In addition to the human toll, there's the impact on the complex operation that keeps airplanes moving in and out of airports across the U.S. The national airspace system is in the midst of being modernized — shifting from a ground-based radar system to a GPS- and satellite-based system.

"Every time we have a shutdown, that project is stalled," Cisneros said. "There's hundreds if not thousands of people working on this that are not able to keep this project going."

And then there's the issue of training. Cisneros said the number of U.S. air traffic controllers is already at a 30-year low, but the academy that trains them in Oklahoma City is shuttered as a result of the shutdown.

"The last time this happened, in 2013, it took us two to three years to reach our hiring goals because of the delays from the furloughs and the shutdown."

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.