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GR airport tech ops union worried about safety, "We don't want this to end in tragedy."

GR airport tech ops union worried about safety, "We don't want this to end in tragedy." (WWMT/Jake Berent)

Federal Aviation Administration workers picketing outside Gerald R. Ford International Airport on Monday had a message for air travelers walking by their picket lines; your safety is at risk.

"The longer the shutdown goes, the chances of an aircraft incident or accident happening increases at an exponential value,” said Tim Mach, Chapter MI1 President of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists Union (PASS).

The union is responsible for the maintenance and repair of radar equipment, air control towers, landing systems, everything pilots use to communicate with air traffic control and keep airplanes separated and landing safely at airports across the country. Some of his coworkers have been furloughed or working without pay since the partial government shutdown began on Dec. 22. The last time workers received pay was on December 31.

“It's demoralizing to come to work and do the job you love to do and see zero dollars on your paycheck, and we're looking at another one coming next week,” Mach said.

PASS workers, like Craig Morton, have had to miss bill payments because their last paycheck on Jan. 14 read: $0.00. Morton went on family medical leave before the shutdown began to take care of his wife who recently had back surgery. Morton said he can’t go back to work and earn his pay until the shutdown ends.

“I took that leave so I could be home to care for her, and I'm no longer receiving pay so the bills are starting to pile up. And that just adds to the impact of the medical side of things, those medical bills we can't pay,” Morton said.

Some creditors have been understanding towards Morton’s plight, but he feels his grace time is running out.

"Most of the lenders or bill collectors, most of them are being pretty lenient. Most are letting us push our bills out by a month, they don't have to do that,” Morton said. "I can already say that it's going to affect my credit. Because even though some lenders will give some relief, they still have to report to credit agencies as ‘non-payment’ so I can't refinance my house, I can't get a new car if I need to."

The short staff and workers working without pay are causing some air travelers to notice that TSA agents are not being as thorough. Trisha Brink was flying out of Grand Rapids on Monday to head home to San Francisco. She travels frequently for work, and said she thought security was lax when she recently went through security in Clearwater, Florida.

“They're more relaxed about things as far as, I didn't need to take off my shoes, I didn't need to pull my electronics out of my bag, so it seemed like they wanted to speed things along, wanted things to move a little bit faster,” Brink said.

Brink feared disaster, but in a different way than PASS workers.

“Sadly, if there wanted to be some sort of situation or terrorist attack or something that would happen, this would be the opportune time to do it because I feel like security is low right now,” Brink said.

Other travelers don’t share that opinion. Emily Vitor flew out of Grand Rapids on Monday to her home in Germany, and said she thought airport security agents hadn't missed a beat.

"I'm not worried about security. My experience was that they checked bags just as thoroughly as they always had,” Vitor said.

The following recording played when the TSA’s media line was contacted about security:

"Thanks for calling the TSA Media Relations Office. Due to the lapse in federal funding, we are unable to answer your phone call."

The message siad if you’re looking for information on security and the government shutdown, to look on TSA’s website. On the TSA website, the latest press release reads, in part:

Every day, TSA officers continue to demonstrate great resilience and dedication as they report for duty, ensuring travelers get to their destinations safely.

Mach said PASS had to shutdown their training center.

The shutdown continues to test the patience of Mach and his staff with each passing day. Mach said some workers are thinking about walking off the job or retirement.

"We're actually facing the possibility, the very real possibility of some of our more experienced technicians just picking a date and deciding to retire. They're done with it,” Mach said.

Mach said PASS will continue to picket at airports all over Michigan until the shutdown is over.

Officials at Ford Airport and the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport said their operations are running smoothly, and they’ve experienced no flight delays or cancellations due to the shutdown.

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