Air traffic controllers want permanent funding solution

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Charles H. Featherstone/Columbia Basin Herald An air traffic controller at the Grant County International Airport. Controllers, all employed by the Federal Aviation Administration, were required to work despite the government shutdown, and have not been paid since December.

MOSES LAKE — Even as Congress and the president have signed an agreement to refund and reopen the federal government temporarily, it’s still been a long and somewhat difficult month for federal employees in Grant County.

“This is great news,” said Kevin Buysman, head of the local branch of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents the 22 air traffic controllers assigned to work at the Grant County International Airport.

“We’re hoping they can find something long term to agree upon, so we can catch up on our financial obligations,” Buysman said. “So we’re not here again in three weeks.”

The U.S. federal government shut down in late December in a row between President Trump and the leaders of the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives over $5 billion in funding the president requested to begin building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The temporary agreement, which expires in mid-February, gives both the president and Congress time to negotiate over wall funding while paying federal employees and restarting government operations shuttered when funding authorization expired in December.

Despite not being an airport with scheduled commercial traffic, the tower at the GCIA is staffed seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. by both certified controllers and trainees.

The airport is used extensively by the Navy and Air Force for training, by Boeing to certify newly built aircraft prior to delivery, and by Mitsubishi, which is testing its new regional jet here. In recent years, the FAA has wanted to close the control tower and relocate air traffic control operations to Spokane, a move recently blocked by Congress.

The last month has been difficult on certified air traffic controllers, all of whom have been working without pay, Buysman said. He added that since none of the controllers at GCIA are local, most assumed some fairly substantial costs moving to Moses Lake.

“We’re sent where the agency needs us, and we’ve been working without pay (since late December),” he said. “Nobody here is local, and we’ve incurred costs moving here.”

Buysman said the shutdown has been toughest on trainees, who in addition to not being paid were also furloughed.

“We do have one member, he just started the job. He has a stay-at-home wife, a toddler and a newborn. He was a Navy controller and he’s sitting at home,” Buysman said. “It’s a perfect storm.”

Buysman said that a group of air traffic controllers in Vancouver, Canada, helped out on one occasion with lunch and dinner, and the flight instructors at Big Bend Community College bought pizza for the GCIA controllers.

“It helps knowing you have allies,” he said.

Buysman said NATCA has no opinion and takes no sides in political matters that have no bearing air traffic safety. However, he also said it is unacceptable for the government jeopardize air safety as well as break commitments to employees.

“We have to make these complex, high-consequence decisions,” he said. “We have to be 100 percent focused and clear-headed.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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