As the federal government shutdown entered its 13th day today, impacts were starting to be felt within the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control tower at Westchester County Airport, the Business Journal learned.
This included uncertainty over whether an important piece of safety equipment used to help guide pilots for landings in the worst weather could be put back into service by the intended date of Jan. 11. There also was uncertainty whether new trainee controllers would be able to join the control tower staff as scheduled on Jan. 7.
Airline passengers, as well as operators of business jets and other general aviation aircraft using the airport, continued to see no outward effects of the shutdown. However, a continuously repeating radio message was beamed to pilots from the control tower, alerting them that Westchester’s instrument landing system runway alignment indicator lights for Runway 16 were out of service.
This lighting system helps pilots approaching the airport from the north to properly align their aircraft when there are extremely low cloud ceilings and sharply reduced visibility, during what are called Category II approaches. Without the lights, they would have to divert to an airport with a fully functioning system or better weather.
The Business Journal learned that the lighting system had to be taken out of service because three of its bulbs burned out. The FAA employees who normally would be tasked with restoring the system were among those on furlough because of the shutdown, the Business Journal was told.
The Business Journal also was told that three trainee controllers due to start work on Jan. 7 at the airport’s control tower could not do so if the shutdown continued. The FAA differentiates between fully certified controllers and trainees who reach various levels of certification as they work in control towers actually handling aircraft. Westchester is supposed to have 15 fully certified controllers on staff, but has been operating with only 11 for more than a year, the Business Journal learned.
“The longer that this goes on, the more anxious everybody feels, especially those who are already furloughed,” said Doug Church, the deputy director of public affairs for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the union which represents FAA controllers, maintenance personnel and others. “The sense of frustration is palpable.”
When interviewed by the Business Journal this morning, Westchester County Executive George Latimer said air services to the public haven’t been affected.
“What we understood was that in the first few weeks of a shutdown we could get by, but that ultimately the shutdown would start to cause some major problems for us,” Latimer said. “Over time, if you can’t provide the proper staffing in the tower, the proper … equipment, if you can’t provide the proper screening and security screening at the gates, you’re gonna diminish service.”
Latimer had visited with screeners on Dec. 26.
Latimer targeted President Trump’s handling of the government shutdown. “Ultimately, if this were a permanent shutdown, if this is the philosophy, ‘I give nothing unless I get everything I want,’ we’re going to have a problem at the Westchester County Airport and we’re going to have other problems,” he said.
Church noted that the passage of time was beginning to take a toll on the NATCA members. “They can’t understand why their work and their pay is a bargaining chip. This is very important work. Those who come to work will continue to do it. But each day the government is shut down weakens our aviation system.”
Numerous attempts to obtain comment from the FAA were unsuccessful. The FAA public affairs staff members were not immediately available because of the government shutdown.