Flights are landing and taking off safely but it's a challenge without the support staff air traffic controllers rely on, says one union official who handles O'Hare International Airport flights.
And as the partial federal government shutdown continues, it's likely the Federal Aviation Administration will need to bring back additional staff to ensure the much-anticipated ribbon-cutting on O'Hare's newest runway occurs next week, Dan Carrico predicted.
"It's only going to get worse," said Carrico, a controller at the O'Hare tower and a National Air Traffic Controllers Association official. "Everyone knows the air traffic controllers are at work, everyone knows the U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors are at work. But people can only operate so long without support ... without our engineers. At some point, something has to give."
Backup staff deemed nonessential include equipment engineers, IT professionals and analysts, NATCA officials said.
Both the Chicago Department of Aviation and FAA confirmed a new runway on the south end of O'Hare will open for business Oct. 17. However, Carrico said there's still a lot of fine-tuning required, such as building mapping diagrams of the runway for controllers' screens, that will require recalling technicians.
On Monday, the FAA announced it was recalling more than 200 inspectors and engineers from its Aircraft Certification Service, more than 600 inspectors and other safety staff from its Flight Standards Service, and 25 physicians and support staff from the Office of Aerospace Medicine.
Physicians are necessary to advise in situations where controllers want to know if medications, such as cold or flu medicine, would interfere with their jobs, Carrico said. Local controllers trying to get information were told to call California last week and wait on hold, he added.
This is the second week of the government shutdown. Carrico said the shutdown hits particularly hard given that federal employees faced furloughs this spring triggered by budget cuts known as the sequester.