Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said a government shutdown would upend hiring and training for potentially thousands of air traffic controllers and other key department employees who work on operations and develop safety procedures.
Even a short shutdown could jeopardize hiring and staffing targets for next year because of the complexity of the department’s hiring and training processes, he told reporters on Wednesday, just three days away from the end of the fiscal year.
“I just want to identify with the millions of Americans who are looking at what’s happening in Washington right now in disbelief,” he said. “Funding the U.S. government is a basic responsibility of Congress. It is not normal that in the most powerful country in the world, fringe congressional Republicans from time to time are able to put the entire country at risk of simply shutting down the government.”
For air traffic control, the agency has been about about 3,000 positions short. Buttigieg said a lapse in appropriations would stop training of new hires and risk furloughing 1,000 individuals who are already in the training pipeline.
“Our air traffic controllers and safety personnel are going to keep going in and doing their job to the extent that they’re allowed to in the context of a shutdown,” he said. “But they’re doing it under added stress.”
Those who would remain working would be deprived of their paychecks, he said, and to absorb the 8% budget cut proposed by House Republicans’ continuing resolution last week, the agency would have to “totally freeze” hiring for operations at the Federal Aviation Administration. In August, the FAA’s chief operating officer, Tim Arel, said officials are planning to hire 1,800 controllers in the upcoming year after meeting its 2023 goal.
All in all, the department’s shutdown contingency plan on file with the White House shows 18,744 could be furloughed. Many agencies have recently updated similar plans in recent weeks to prepare for the possibility their their current funding levels will expire come midnight on Sept. 30.
The plan notes a number of functions that would cease during a lapse, including aviation rulemaking, audits, random drug testing of the non-safety workforce, facility security inspections and development of NextGen safety standards, among others.
A shutdown would also force the agency to halt efforts to modernize its Notice to Air Missions system, which is separate from the air traffic control system and alerts pilots and essential personnel to changes in conditions that could affect flights.
The system experienced an outage in January, and because it still relies on some legacy systems, the agency has been working to update it with a goal to complete most of that work by mid-2025.
Buttigieg warned efforts to keep working on NOTAM and other systems could be set back.
In other departmental offices that have been busy working on railroad safety following the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in January, Buttigieg said extreme budget cuts would gut 4,000 safety inspectors next year, leaving “11,000 miles” of railroad potentially uninspected.
Even other areas that have advanced funding, like grants and rulemaking for electrical-vehicle charging, could get “gummed up” with support staff and offices being affected by a shutdown, he added.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.