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Air Traffic Controllers sound safety alarm during shutdown

Sen. Tim Kaine listens to Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants. (ABC7)

“I'm starting to see routine mistakes in clearances being made because controllers are distracted,” declared National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi.

That distraction: the shutdown and missing two paychecks.

“Many of these people are our veterans. Many of these people are fighting for our country right now and we are not paying them. They are worried for the safety and security of their own families as they come to work every day to ensure the safety and security of all of us," said Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Aviation union leaders held an emergency meeting Wednesday night. One of their union members committed suicide Wednesday. They are concerned it could have been because of working for weeks without pay.

Air traffic controllers in purple shirts met with Democratic US Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia at National while Republican Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland met at Baltimore Washington Airport. Hogan calling upon state government to help furloughed aviation workers any way, making public transportation free for them during the shutdown.

“Every single state transportation service is going to be free for these state employees so they can get to work without having to pay from their own pocket,” said Hogan.

“I can see the unraveling happening. I can see the controllers more concerned about do I continue to live off my credit card,” added Rinaldi.

Laura and Chris Lopez work in the control tower at Dulles International Airport.

“Coming into this job, I never thought it was a job where we wouldn't get paid,” said Laura Lopez while holding her 5-week-old daughter Fern before overcome by crying.

Husband and fellow controller Chris Lopez added, “We feel a bit ambushed by this. It's really putting us in a rut. We're counting our spending, we're counting our dollars, we're counting what we buy at the grocery store.”

Another Dulles air traffic controller can no longer afford anybody to watch her son and now has to send her child away to grandparents. “I can't afford to pay my babysitter nine hours a day to be there for a week, so I have to send him away for a week so I can make sure he's taken care of when I go to work. I have never been away from my son.”

“I took out retirement from a previous job. We've already missed a paycheck, so we have a mortgage to pay,” added Laura Lopez.

In response to NATCA’s declaration of increased controller mistakes due to shutdown concerns, the FAA released a statement Thursday afternoon:

“The FAA continually reviews and analyzes the performance of the national airspace system to assess its safety and efficiency. We have seen no unusual increased absenteeism and there are no operational disruptions due to staffing. Also, we have seen no measurable increase in unplanned air traffic controller retirements or resignations. We remain grateful to the air traffic controllers for their professional and dedication to their safety mission,” said Jeannie Shiffer, FAA Deputy Assistant Administrator.

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