Canadian Air Traffic Controllers Buy Pizza For American Colleagues Affected By U.S. Government Shutdown

Canadian air traffic controllers are carrying out a simple, but heartfelt gesture for their American counterparts — they’re buying them dinner amidst the U.S. government shutdown.

Air traffic controllers (ATC) in Moncton, N.B. and Gander, Nfld. sent pizza over to controllers manning the stations at the New York Air Traffic Control Center (ZNY), in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., on Friday night in support of their colleagues who are working unpaid as the American government’s partial shutdown drags into its fourth week.

A photo of a sign hung up in New York Center which said that 32 pizzas had been ordered by the Canadians was posted on Reddit by user PlatinumAero, whose real name is David Lombardo.

Lombardo, who runs the Facebook page ATC Memes and is a partner on the ATC merch website radarcontact.com, used to work at New York Center and continues to have close contact with air traffic controllers across the United States.

He told HuffPost Canada that the picture was sent to him from one of the controllers who is working at the ZNY during the shutdown. He explained that Canadian and American air traffic controllers often work closely together.

“New York Center is a radar facility that handles a large chunk of domestic and international air traffic. Part of the centre’s airspace lies up against Canadian airspace, so in other words, these controllers ‘hand off’ aircraft to one another, and work together to keep airplanes safe,” Lombardo said.

The government shutdown is significantly affecting air traffic controllers — according to Lombardo, some have experienced shutdowns before, but never ones that lasted this long.

Related video: Air traffic controllers’ union is taking U.S. president to court. Story continues below.

“Many controllers who work for the [Federal Aviation Administration] literally got paycheques that said $0.00, and many are doing overtime, working holidays, nights, weekends, and are in facilities that are already very short-staffed,” Lombardo said. “To add the stress of not knowing when they’re going to get paid, that has to be tough for many.”

Air traffic controllers in Atlantic Canada aren’t the only Canadians reaching out to their American counterparts.

Montreal Centre sent Boston Center pizza, while Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport sent pizza to their counterparts in Burlington, Vt. and LaGuardia, N.Y.

Toronto’s area centre sent pizza to their colleagues at Cleveland Center, while Vancouver bought pizza for Seattle Center.

“In many cases these are radar control facilities buying for the neighbouring sector facility,” Lombardo said.

The outpouring of support isn’t ending yet though — Lombardo said Winnipeg Tower is sending dinner to Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport’s tower on Sunday night, and already covered Grand Forks’ lunch on Saturday.

And the entire initiative was started in Edmonton’s area control centre after employees brainstormed ways to help their counterparts down south. Controller Mike Cormier suggested they buy pizza for their colleagues in Anchorage, Alaska, according to Scott Loder, the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association’s (CATCA) Edmonton branch chair.

“News spread to our CATCA union president who was at the negotiations table with our bargaining team members from across the country… and all other [area control centres] and a majority of control towers started joining this amazing demonstration of support for our American colleagues south of the border.”

Peter Duffey, CATCA’s president, said that financially helping the over 10,000 air traffic controllers in the United States was out of the question — but a small but meaningful gesture like buying the pizza was hopefully enough to cheer shut-down controllers up, so on Thursday the controllers in Anchorage received their free dinner.

“As odd as that may sound, airplanes leaving Edmonton… the next controllers they talk to are in Anchorage so there’s a lot of conversations… taking place between those units,” Duffey explained.

Edmonton controllers also decided to send pizza to the centre in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Another Reddit user commented on Lombardo’s thread and said they received an email from the Toronto union branch noting that the pizzas are an initiative taking place at centres across the country.

“As a gesture of solidarity with our fellow American controllers, we will be sending pizza to the Cleveland Center controllers for dinner. They are in the middle of the government shutdown and as of yesterday did not receive their paycheques,” the email reportedly said. “All the [Area Control Centre’s (ACC] across the country will be buying pizzas for their adjacent centres.”

HuffPost Canada confirmed with Nav Canada, the not-for-profit corporation that employs all Canadian air traffic controllers, that all seven of Canada’s area control centres had sent pizza to American colleagues, along with many of the country’s 40 control towers.

“We are very proud of the thoughtfulness that our controllers have shown to their colleagues in the U.S., proud but not surprised,” Ron Singer, Nav Canada’s media relations manager, told HuffPost Canada.

He also emphasized that while all seven ACCs had participated, Nav Canada had not officially launched any sort of campaign, and that the initiative was entirely employee-based.

CATCA’s president had similar praise for his colleagues.

“It’s just overwhelming pride… this was not something the union asked them to do. This was something that the members did on their own and to be able to say you represent people like that, it’s truly humbling and I’m so proud of the men and women in my association for what they’ve done.”

Duffey added that at least 41 FAA units in the United States have received pizza from Canadians so far, and that the response from American controllers has been “overwhelming gratitude” for the morale boost.

Tight-knit community

He also explained that air traffic controllers are a close community — Canadian and American ATCs get together a few times a year and do a lot of things together — and he compared the solidarity between controllers to the bond between police officers or firefighters.

“Air traffic control is very much the same. It’s a very close-knit fraternity of people doing the same job and when they see others struggling, they’re quick to respond.”

Duffey also noted that after the Fort McMurray, Alta. wildfire in 2016, where controllers were some of the last people to be evacuated and ran into financial problems after the disaster, the U.S. air traffic control union was one of the first to reach out with cash donations.

Lombardo, who lives in Long Island, N.Y., told HuffPost Canada the shutdown is pushing some people towards desperate measures like taking out loans, and that people have even messaged his ATC Memes page to ask him to share information on different loan programs.

Air traffic controllers haven’t been paid for their work the first two weeks of 2019, and many are urging U.S. President Donald Trump to bring an end to the government shutdown.

“This partial shutdown has already inflicted real damage to our nation’s aviation system and the impacts will only worsen over time,” a group of aviation organizations including the National Air Traffic Control Association wrote in an open letter sent to government officials.

“As the shutdown persists, excepted air traffic controllers and workers in technical operations, who operate and maintain safety-critical navigational aids, surveillance, and communications equipment, are performing highly skilled and safety-critical services without pay.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association also filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration on Friday for allegedly violating the Fifth Amendment by depriving controllers of “hard-earned compensation without the requisite due process.”

“Air traffic control — we always say our career is one where we have to be 100 per cent correct, 100 per cent of the time with zero room for error, and I really feel for the folks that have got to come in to work on this high pressure, high stress job that now have to worry about how they’re going to make mortgage payments and how they’re going to put food on the family table for a couple weeks,” Duffey said.

“If there’s anything that we can do — a small gesture of buying lunch for somebody maybe — if there’s anything that we can do to let our brothers and sisters down there know that we are standing with them, it’s just an absolutely fantastic initiative.”