Air traffic control system 'starting to get scary' for unpaid workers

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — More than 300 Alaskans have been working unpaid in air traffic control towers across the state, and the reality of having no income is causing some to consider career changes.

"It's something we discuss as a family every day," said Clint Lancaster, an air traffic control operator and the regional president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "It's the first thing you think about when you wake up and the last thing you think about when you're falling asleep. It's stressful."

While the shutdown has caused his family to reevaluate its day-to-day functions, Lancaster says the shutdown could also have an impact on his industry long after the government reopens fully.

"I think it's gone from being kind of a burden to being a very worried workforce where people are actually starting to think about what's life like after this," Lancaster said. "Am I going to have to resign from this job that I've put all this time and all this energy into getting, and then what does life look like now that I can't do that?"

Lancaster says the number of air traffic controllers in the country is at a 30-year low, and 70 percent of workers have been in the field less than five years.

"Some of these folks, depending on where they work, they're still living paycheck to paycheck because they haven't had that opportunity in their career to build a nest egg. We're worried about losing those people," Lancaster said. "The long-term effects of this could be catastrophic to the workforce."

Lancaster says that some workers have picked up second jobs outside of their unpaid work to cover their bills. However, overworked air traffic controllers can become fatigued, and fatigue can increase the chances of mistakes in a profession with little margin for error. Additionally, support staff that maintain equipment and help controllers operate efficiently have been furloughed.

"Our vice president said it in an interview the other day, she was asked 'Is it as safe to fly as it was a month ago?' and the answer is, probably not," Lancaster said. "The planes that they (air traffic controller) can work, they'll keep safe, but that system is eroding and it's starting to get a little scary, I think for everybody that flies."

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