Last week, readers were surprised to discover that air traffic controllers are among the highest salaried professions in New Zealand.

A freshly qualified air coordinator could start working for Airways New Zealand on a six-figure salary.

As well as not understanding the jobs of these men and women in terms of pay, it seems the at the influence air traffic controllers hold has also been greatly underestimated.

The true power of the air traffic unions was shown in forcing the hand of the Trump White House to end the partial government shutdown, which had frozen pay across the US for a record 35 days.

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"Controllers brought the country to its knees," said former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in a column for The Guardian.

It is illegal for those working in air traffic coordination to coordinate a strike. The job is deemed simply too important for the running of the country. However, there was a workaround.

"Controllers simply stayed home. No federal law prohibits federal employees from getting sick or calling in sick," said Reich, suggesting that the jump in absenteeism had the appearance of a "sick out."

Like other federal departments - including the fellow airport workers of the TSA - by last Friday, controllers had missed two paychecks. The system was starting to show cracks.

"We have experienced a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities," the FAA announced. "We are mitigating the impact by augmenting staffing, rerouting traffic, and increasing spacing between aircraft when needed."

Control tower: In 1981 over 10,000 striking controllers were fired. Photo /Getty Images
Control tower: In 1981 over 10,000 striking controllers were fired. Photo /Getty Images

A dozen or so controllers at airports near DC and Florida used their right to call in sick, and within a day the historic shutdown had caved.

Joseph McCartin, a history professor at George Town University explained the effect to Vox.com "There are choke points in the system that if people don't cooperate it will have repercussions across the country."

McCartin wrote about a similar situation in his book Collision Course, when in 1981 President Regan had to lay off 11,345 controllers.

He told Vox: "If the union tried to organise such an action it would be illegal and could lead to them being decertified.

"But it seems clear that controllers themselves probably did some organising on a local level, and decided that this is going to go on until we [the controllers] do something to stop this."

At no time were any passengers in any danger.

The result of understaffing is that air traffic corridors slow and delays back up at airports.

On January 23, Paul Rinaldi President of the Air Traffic Controllers Association spoke on CNN: "If we don't have controllers to open up the sectors we will see less volume of airplanes. Air traffic controllers will do everything in the world to maintain that high safety level."

"The greatest toll to operations I'm seeing to is the human one," he said.

LaGuardia Airport: FAA announced it would delay flights out of multiple airports due to staffing shortages. Photo / Getty Images
LaGuardia Airport: FAA announced it would delay flights out of multiple airports due to staffing shortages. Photo / Getty Images

What had started with a meek missive about "a slight increase in sick leave at two facilities" ended with a far more confident standing from the AFA union.

"Do we have your attention now, Leader McConnell? All lawmakers? Open the government and then get back to the business of democracy to discuss whatever issue you so choose. This shutdown must end immediately," read their statement.

By the end of the day it was.

"Controllers won't work another 35 days without pay. Now that they understand their power, they will shut down the shutdown right away. Trump knows this," said Robert Reich.

Controllers in New Zealand

According to Careers New Zealand there are fewer than "400 air traffic controllers are employed nationwide".

The Ministry of Business explains that "few new air traffic controllers are recruited each year and competition for openings is intense. For those who are already in this occupation, job prospects are good and incomes are very high."

Air traffic controller Alice Palmer Suhr in the hot seat at Wellington Airport. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Air traffic controller Alice Palmer Suhr in the hot seat at Wellington Airport. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In spite of offering workers at radar centres in Auckland or Christchurch salaries of around $180,000 a year, there are difficulties sourcing enough trained controllers.

An average of 5.6 flights are disrupted annually by controllers arriving late for work according to Airways data obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act.

It's an invaluable job without which airports can't function.

Notably last year airspace ground to a halt over Gisborne when staff were locked out of the airport control tower.

Last year Newshub wrote that staffing shortages were forcing controllers to work when sick or tired.

"We would have thought Airways would have run an efficient call or reserve system to allow for sickness, but they don't," NZ Airline Pilots Association President Rim Robinson told Newshub.