DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Air travelers are used to flight delays and cancellations because of the weather or maybe mechanical problems. Well, it soon might be the partial government shutdown that is disrupting travel. New planes are not being certified to fly. Security screeners and air traffic controllers are working unpaid. Here's more from NPR's David Schaper in Chicago.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm here at Chicago's O'Hare Airport standing next to one of the large CT-80 scanners. It's essentially a CT scanner for your checked luggage. And the TSA officers who operate this machine, they're here at work lifting the heavy and sometimes odd shaped and overstuffed bags onto the conveyor belt to go through the machine even though come this Friday, if the shutdown continues, they won't get paid. And that presents a severe financial hardship for many of these officers.
CHRISTINE VITEL: I've been here 16 years plus. I am a single mom.
SCHAPER: Christine Vitel is a security screener at O'Hare with a son in college, and she's trying to figure out how she'll pay his tuition. And...
VITEL: I just bought a house. I'm not going to be able to pay my mortgage.
JANIS CASEY: A lot of the officers, they live paycheck to paycheck.
SCHAPER: Janis Casey is president of the Union Local representing TSA employees in Chicago. And she notes that they are among the lowest paid federal employees. Some average $36,000 to $43,000 a year, but start only in the mid-20s. And for some TSA workers and their families, the situation could get dire rather quickly.
JACINDA: If there's no check on the 26, I have no idea what we're going to do.
SCHAPER: Thirty-six-year-old Jacinda's husband is a TSA officer in Portland. We're not using her last name because she fears he could be fired. They have two kids, a 6-month-old girl and a boy turning 4 at the end of this month. Jacinda says they were planning to buy a few presents and decorations to celebrate, but now they can't.
JACINDA: Our rent is due. The electric bill is due. Our cellphones are now past due.
SCHAPER: Jacinda says her husband's hiring by the TSA three years ago helped lift the family out of poverty. Now she fears the shutdown will set them back.
JACINDA: I'm scared. And I'm trying to be OK because I can't be sad every day for my kids and I can't be stressed out because it effects how I parent. You know, my husband's stressed out too, and he has to go to work and deal with it at work. And, you know, he knows he's working for free, which is ridiculous.
SCHAPER: Even more ridiculous, Jacinda says, is that he came home the other day with instructions on how to file for unemployment while he's still working 40 hours a week. And the situation is not much better for higher paid essential government workers like air traffic controllers.
MICK DEVINE: It's a very high-stress job, and you need to be on your game at all times.
SCHAPER: Mick Devine is with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in Boston. And he says the shutdown is forcing controllers to make tough financial decisions, and it weighs on them heavily.
DEVINE: There is a concern that as this goes on that the human factors aspect of this shutdown will take a toll on the psyche and the concentration level of our members. And they do the best job that they can each and every day.
SCHAPER: Nearly 20 percent of the FAA's 10,000 air traffic controllers are eligible to retire, and union leaders say some might do that rather than continue to work during the shutdown. There are also concerns that many of the nation's 51,000 TSA employees will quit and find work elsewhere rather than continue to work without pay. Already, a greater number than usual have been calling in sick, and only some FAA safety inspectors are working right now.
DENNIS TAJER: We're starting to see the beginning tremors of a situation that will only get worse over time.
SCHAPER: Captain Dennis Tajer is a pilot for American Airlines and a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. He says many planes are not being inspected, and pilot training is not being certified.
TAJER: We are able to maintain a margin of safety and security, but every day, another player is pulled off the field. And there comes some point where the game cannot be played properly.
SCHAPER: Back at O'Hare, air travelers are expressing concerns, too. Here's Ericka Westgard (ph) of Indialantic, Fla.
ERICKA WESTGARD: If TSA is affected and lines do get longer, work could get sloppier. They might not be checking things as well, and that's always a concern for safety.
SCHAPER: But Ray Ortiz, who just arrived on a business trip from New York, says he hasn't seen any ill effects from the shutdown yet.
RAY ORTIZ: I flew out of JFK today. Like, I actually showed up early because I thought the wait times might be very long, but it was actually really short today.
SCHAPER: Nonetheless, Ortiz and other air travelers and industry insiders worry that as the shutdown continues, there could be a tipping point where safety and security could be compromised or operations could slow in a commercial aviation system already plagued by delays. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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