U.S. aviation officials have compiled data that statistically support, for the first time, Trump administration statements that the partial government shutdown hasn’t jeopardized air-traffic-control safety.
The data, according to one person briefed on the details, indicate that serious traffic-control deviations—incidents of planes coming dangerously close to each other in the air or on the ground—have remained flat from levels a year ago. Such incidents are typically captured by computers and other automated means.
The statistical summary, covering the duration of the shutdown through the end of last week, also shows a 4% overall drop across a broader range of air-traffic-control deviations, this person said.
Voluntary pilot and controller reports of safety incidents related to the nation’s air-traffic system are down 14% from the same period a year earlier, the person said. Such voluntary reporting is considered another important measure of aviation safety, though some have raised questions about whether fair comparisons can be made between a normal period and one during a shutdown.
The statistics haven’t been reported before. They are significant because until now, the traveling public hasn’t had any objective standard to assess the accuracy of government assertions about the condition and safety of the nation’s aviation system.
Air-traffic controllers are among the federal workers who have continued working without pay through the partial government shutdown that began a month ago. They say they are continuing to come to work and aren’t letting safety erode, but the financial strain is beginning to wear on morale amid longer-term concerns about staffing levels at the busiest airports and a potential wave of retirements in the coming years.
On Monday, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that the agency “continually reviews and analyzes the performance of the national airspace system to assess its safety and efficiency. We have not observed any appreciable difference in performance over the last several weeks compared to the same periods during the previous two years.”
Total air traffic is up about 3% from a year ago.
“We remain grateful to the air-traffic controllers and technicians for their professionalism and dedication,” the spokesman also said.
The aviation industry has come into focus as the impacts of the longest-ever government shutdown have rippled through the economy. Absences among airport-security screeners have been rising, reaching 10% of the workforce on Sunday, according to the Transportation Security Administration, almost three times the rate a year ago. There have been sporadic episodes of long lines at some airports. Airlines have said the shutdown will delay some of their plans to add aircraft to their fleets and launch new routes.
Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said recent data she had reviewed on voluntarily reported incidents don’t show the full picture.
“The data is incomplete because all components of the safety-reporting process aren’t in place,” she said. “The people that would report safety issues aren’t confident in the process right now. They’re not reporting.”
Ms. Gilbert said stress levels are rising to alarming levels, with some controllers reporting that they aren’t fit for duty. About a dozen have resigned, she said, suggesting that number could grow when another payday goes by with no checks.
“When they see the next pay statement with a zero, there’s going to be a whole other level of people opting to do something besides this job,” the union official said.
The union has sued the federal government, arguing that controllers have been unlawfully denied their wages. Last week a judge denied their motion for a temporary restraining order to force the government to begin paying. A hearing is set for the end of the month.
Some union officials fear air-traffic controllers are nearing a breaking point.
“This shutdown is the only topic in the breakroom as resources are starting to run thin,” said Alex Huttenga, an air-traffic controller and president of the local union in Detroit. “Everyone is concerned what they are going to do when they run out of money and can no longer report to work.”
Staffing levels for certified controllers are at 30-year lows, according to the union. Nearly 20% of air-traffic controllers nationwide are eligible for retirement, and Mr. Huttenga said some in Detroit are considering retiring earlier than they had planned. Younger controllers with big student-loan bills have also been hit hard, he said.
In Fort Worth, Texas, a few controllers have left due to the shutdown and several others have taken second jobs, said Nick Daniels, the local union president.
“I had a girl in my office yesterday crying because she was having to pick up a second job and I was trying to find ways to find her cash,” he said. “That is absolutely irresponsible risk introduced into the system unnecessarily.”
Eddie DeLisle, a regional vice president for the union in the northwest, said a recent survey showed that more than 50 controllers nationwide have taken on other work to make ends meet. A handful are now working effectively another full-time job in their off-hours, raising the risk of fatigue.
The shutdown could exacerbate what he sees as a looming staffing crunch. With the air-traffic-control training academy closed, the pipeline of employees has been choked off. New hires who were about to start training are in limbo.
“They told him to sit tight,” Mr. DeLisle said of a new hire from his area. “I don’t know how he’ll manage to do that.”