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Working without pay, air traffic controllers appeal to Philly travelers

“It’s a great job, especially when they pay you.”

Air traffic controllers Kristen Laubach, left, and Cynthia Lowtther leaflet outside The Philadelphia International Airport to let people know about the shutdown and how they're working without pay.
Air traffic controllers Kristen Laubach, left, and Cynthia Lowtther leaflet outside The Philadelphia International Airport to let people know about the shutdown and how they're working without pay.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

It was bitterly cold and not everyone wanted to hear it.

Hurrying past with their rolling suitcases, some barely stopped to say, Sorry, gotta catch a plane. Another told them he hoped the shutdown went on until the border wall got funded. But some were sympathetic. “I’m all in your favor,” one woman said. “I hate the bastards.”

Seven air traffic controllers who work at airports in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Atlantic City bundled up, brought travel mugs of coffee, and stationed themselves outside Terminal B’s departure gates Wednesday morning to make an appeal to travelers at Philadelphia International Airport. Members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), they planned to take turns doing so for the rest of the week, as the union was doing nationwide.

Working without pay for more than three weeks due to a standoff in Washington, they passed out green leaflets bearing the words End the government shutdown immediately! and asked travelers to call their members of Congress and help them and their coworkers get back to business as usual.

“It’s a great job,” said union vice president John Murdock, “especially when they pay you.”

Airports across the country have been high-profile stages for the shutdown, with a few airports, like those in Miami and Atlanta, closing security checkpoints due to TSA agents — forced to work without pay — calling out sick in unusually high numbers. Last week, several airline unions sent a letter to Washington saying the shutdown was hurting their industry. An industry trade group also warned of shutdown repercussions this week.

In Philadelphia, the shutdown has not affected operations, said airport spokesperson Diane Gerace.

One airport service worker, a 30-year veteran familiar with the passenger-traffic patterns of PHL, said it made sense that the shutdown hadn’t affected the airport. The first few weeks of the year are generally quiet. “It’s a ghost town,” said the worker, who declined to share his name, saying he was not authorized to speak with the media.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump called nearly 50,000 federal employees back to work without pay, including airplane inspectors, IRS workers, and Food and Drug Administration inspectors, to soften the blow of the shutdown. About 800,000 federal employees were either working without pay or furloughed. They missed their first paycheck on Friday and are bracing to miss another. Those working without pay are assured of getting back wages, thanks to a federal bill, but workers argue that’s little comfort, especially for those who have been living paycheck to paycheck.

Federal worker unions, including NATCA, had filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration saying it was unconstitutional to force them to work without pay. On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled against the workers.

At Philadelphia International, 80 NATCA members, most of whom are air traffic controllers, are working without pay, while four have been furloughed.

One of NATCA’s major concerns is how the shutdown will impact the controller pipeline: The numbers of controllers are at a 30-year low, Murdock said, and the academy that trains them is closed during the shutdown. The union has insisted, though, that air safety will not be affected.

The workers have benefited from displays of generosity.

The Philadelphia airport is offering free meals every Monday to TSA agents.

Controllers in Quebec City sent pizza and mozzarella sticks to their Philadelphia counterparts Tuesday evening, part of a nationwide effort from the Canadian Air Traffic Controllers Association. Earlier that day, the Allied Pilots Association, the American Airlines pilots' union, sent a spread of Famous Dave’s BBQ to the controllers for lunch, said NATCA local president Christopher Perks. And on Wednesday, they were expecting more meals from the Fire Department workers at the airport and Skydive Cross Keys, a South Jersey company with which the controllers often work.

On Wednesday morning, at the American Airlines departures door at Terminal B, there were no snacks. And although it was mostly quiet — the rush came around 6 a.m., they said — the controllers, some working later that day, seized any chance to tell travelers about their situation. You could call or email your members of Congress while awaiting your flight, they suggested.

The union has never staged an action like this in Philadelphia before, said Murdock, 39, his Canada Goose jacket zipped up high. But he had been leafleting since 5 a.m. and had since perfected his pitch.

“Car salesman," he said. “That’s what I’m doing next."