Unpaid air traffic controllers at Spokane airport try to draw attention to their shutdown plight

January 23, 2019

Messages from air traffic controllers usually consist of relays between the airport tower and pilots. But travelers at the Spokane International Airport on Tuesday got a different message from Spokane’s working-yet-unpaid air traffic controllers: End the government shutdown.

About a dozen air traffic controllers fanned out around the airport between 1 and 5 p.m., handing out pamphlets describing their work and encouraging travelers to call U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican congresswoman who represents Eastern Washington, and tell her to fund the federal government.

“A lot of us federal workers feel like we’re being used as pawns,” said Mike Cashion, vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in Spokane. “We’re here telling people how the shutdown is affecting our profession, and we’re here to inform the flying public who we are and how we work with pilots to get people where they’re going.”

The 34 air traffic controllers who work at the Spokane airport are employees of the Federal Aviation Administration, which last paid them Dec. 25. Since then, they have worked without pay and without knowing when they’ll get paid because of the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, now the longest in U.S. history. About 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay as President Donald Trump haggles over funding with a Congress partially controlled by Democrats.

Cashion said his job had provided a “middle class” life until recently. Now his partner and two kids are having more spaghetti dinners, and his 9-year-old son is “definitely concerned.”

“It’s added a level of stress on top of an already stressful situation,” said Cashion, noting he doesn’t know if or when he’ll have to start looking for a job in order to pay the bills. “Everybody’s got a clock that’s ticking. At some point, something’s got to break, and everybody’s trying to figure out how to make it work. It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Cashion said people have sent him and his colleagues meals, beginning when Canadian air traffic controllers bought pizzas for their American counterparts earlier this month.

“The generosity of the community, it’s been unbelievable,” he said.

Handing out pamphlets and talking to the public did not suggest the air traffic controllers would walk off the job, which is prohibited by law, Cashion said. It was just to remind travelers of the controllers role in air safety – a role they’ve filled for nearly a month without a paycheck.

“We stand by our profession,” Cashion said. “We provide a safe service. Without us, that’s a system that I can’t imagine.”

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