WASHINGTON — The thousands of air traffic controllers who guide airplanes to safety at airports across the country are among the federal employees working without pay.

On Thursday, many took their eyes off the skies to march on the ground in Washington, demanding Congress and the president go back to the negotiating table.

“We've got people coming to work that do essential safety work that are not being paid,” said Captain Joseph DePete of the Airline Pilots Association.

The union boss says air safety should be a non-negotiable and that few people truly understand the significance of air traffic controllers.

“When our pilots step into a cockpit and fire up the engines, [air traffic controllers] are the shepherds of the sky,” said DePete.

“Wherever you are flying in this country, an air traffic controller is talking to that pilot and guiding them safely to their destination,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Many of them are former military and are the sole providers for their families.

“I have a wife and two kids. I got a zero dollar pay check today," said John Bratcher, who drove from Arkansas to be part of Thursday's demonstration in front of the U.S. Capitol. "You don’t hear about us a lot, so people don’t associate the federal government with us. I don’t have any opinion on the border wall. For me, it’s just about bringing the government back up.”


“I’ve spent time in the towers, and the work that they do is amazing, and the hours they put in are really demanding. It’s a very, very stressful job,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, the lone Democrat in Kentucky’s Congressional delegation.

Yarmuth said he’s confident air traffic controllers won’t strike, but their plight is a key example of why the government needs to reopen.

President Trump has pledged to keep parts of the government shutdown until he gets more than $5 billion in border wall funding.

Democrats say they are unwilling to fund construction of a wall.

“I don’t think you want any air traffic controller overly-stressed by his or her financial situation when they are trying to guide our planes in and out. They understand how vital they are to the economy of the country,” said Yarmuth.