Unpaid air traffic controllers greet travelers at airport

Support grows for furloughed federal employees
Air Traffic Control Specialist Kyle Sabin, of Guilderland, hands out pamphlets inside Albany International Airport on Friday.
Air Traffic Control Specialist Kyle Sabin, of Guilderland, hands out pamphlets inside Albany International Airport on Friday.

COLONIE — Off-duty air traffic controllers came down from Albany International Airport’s tower Friday to tell the travelers who rely on them what it’s like to work without a paycheck.

It was day 28 of the federal government shutdown, a political standoff that has, to varying degrees, affected hundreds of thousands of federal employees and the services they provide. 

Air traffic controllers are indispensable to safe operation of the nation’s airspace. On the other side of the terminal, Transportation Security Administration agents are tasked with blocking crime and terror on flights.

Both are essential government employees, and as such, they must report to work, even though no money has been appropriated to pay them.

“We are handing out leaflets and literature to inform the general public how this shutdown is affecting the air traffic controllers specifically, and federal employees in general,” said Andrew Pegler, local president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union.

“There’s a lot of people that are understanding, and they are compassionate,” he said of the travelers he encountered in the terminal on Friday. “They didn’t realize how much this can affect everything.”

So far, the air traffic controllers are keeping everything moving normally. Airport spokesman Doug Myers said there have been no flight delays due to the shutdown. Also, controllers and TSA agents alike have had no more than average absentee rates.

“That’s good on us and bad on us in the same breath,” Pegler said. 

It’s good because it shows the workers’ level of commitment to their jobs, travelers and the airline industry. It’s bad because it neutralizes a potent way to end the shutdown: The American public would demand an immediate end to anything that hindered air travel.

On the bright side, there has been an outpouring of public support for federal employees working without pay at Albany International Airport, Myers said, with donations of meals and snacks.

“Today, iHeartRadio was hosting a barbecue on the third level,” he said. “I’m waiting to hear from a contracting association and a major convenience store chain in the area.”

Actor Treat Williams made breakfast this week, he added, and Discover Saratoga will bring in food next Tuesday.

“We’ve had so many citizens and organizations come forward to assist,” Myers said. “We totally respect what they have been doing on behalf of the airport and the airlines.”

The donations are much-appreciated, Pegler said.

“It’s a great morale-booster when someone walks in and brings a box of doughnuts,” said Pegler, who will be working at the height of this weekend’s storm. “I have a shift Sunday morning, and I know it’s going to be a long, hard shift.”

That kind of day is easier to get through when an appreciative stranger brings in some sustenance, he said.

Other types of aid are being offered as the shutdown drags on.

National Grid and other utilities this week announced they would help unpaid federal employees with their gas and electricity bills, and Hannaford forwarded $50,000 to food banks specifically to help federal employees.

Hannaford spokeswoman Ericka Dodge said the Maine-based supermarket chain took action after seeing the impact on Coast Guard families who live near the chain’s corporate headquarters. Discussion with Feeding America’s food banks showed the need to be widespread.

“We felt like we had to act on it sooner rather than later,” she said. “We’re working with the food bank partners to identify the people that are in highest need.”

Hannaford also will be setting up in-store kiosks where shoppers can donate money to help local hunger-relief efforts.

The new initiatives are on top of Hannaford’s daily support of local food banks. Last year, that totaled 26 million pounds of food, much of it fresh or perishable items that were cosmetically flawed but still safe to eat.

“Every day, there’s a daily cull that happens, where the associates will select the food, and the food pantries will come and pick it up,” Dodge said.

The gas/electric bill assistance came at the suggestion of the Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s utilities; participation was voluntary.

“We’re certainly supportive of it,” said National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella. Other utilities participating are Consolidated Edison, Central Hudson, Orange and Rockland, New York State Electric and Gas, Rochester Electric and Gas, PSEG Long Island and National Fuel Gas.

Details of assistance vary between utilities. National Grid will halt collection calls and disconnect notices to furloughed federal employees, Stella said. Also, those workers can get a deferred payment or a collection arrangement, he said.

Eligible federal workers can contact National Grid’s call center with proof of employment to obtain this assistance.

The move was timely, coming as the harshest weather so far this winter was bearing down on the Capital Region.

“It’s a good way to support those folks who are unexpectedly not getting paid on a regular basis,” Stella said.

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