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Seattle air traffic controllers concerned about safety as government shutdown drags on

Air traffic controllers say the safety of U.S. airspace is at risk as the government shutdown drags on. Air safety inspectors have been furloughed and training is on hold, which could cause an air traffic controller shortage to worsen.

Air traffic controllers gathered at Sea-Tac International Airport Wednesday with a message for passengers. They say the safety of U.S. airspace is at-risk as the government shutdown drags on.

“We believe that the aviation system is less safe today than it was a month ago, and every day the shutdown continues. Those problems are going to continue to compound,” said Eddie DeLisle, a controller at Portland International Airport, who is also regional vice president for NATCA, the union representing air traffic controllers.

DeLisle and his colleagues, who are not getting paid during the partial government shutdown, passed out pamphlets to passengers explaining what air traffic controllers do and how the shutdown is impacting them.

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NATCA says furloughs and missed paychecks are causing a slow-motion avalanche of problems, still indiscernible to travelers.

“As of today, we're fine, but if there was a safety event today, the people who would review that, they've been furloughed,” said DeLisle.

Air safety inspectors have been furloughed and training is on hold. A halt in hiring could cause an air traffic controller shortage to worsen, NATCA said. There are also delays in rolling out new technology like a text message system designed to improve communication between pilots and controllers.

The FAA says it expects to have about 2,200 inspectors back on the job by the end of the week, though they still won't get paid until the government fully reopens.

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In the meantime, the aviation community is coming together to support their colleagues as morale plummets, and bills add up.

A group of pilots delivered pizzas to controllers at Sea-Tac and Boeing field on Tuesday. The gesture has been repeated at towers nationwide and was spurred by a group of Canadian controllers.

TSA officers also are not getting paid. Security screening lines at Sea-Tac moved smoothly again Wednesday with no apparent disruptions to passengers.

A few empathetic travelers had kind words for the controllers, but for the most part, they were busy trying to catch their flights, too rushed to stop and listen.