January 07, 2019

The US government has been partially shutdown since midnight on Dec. 22. Every year, the United States Congress appropriates funds for federal agencies to operate in each fiscal year. In the absence of either a signed appropriations bill or a continuing resolution by Congress and the president, funding for government operations is ceased. During a shutdown furlough, essential employees are expected to continue working. Government functions relating to emergency and disaster assistance, criminal investigations, air traffic control, protection of federal property and other activities continue to operate, although with a reduced workforce and without pay.

As the shutdown continues, air travel safety is at risk.


Air Travel Among the Most Impacted

In the near-term, the US government shutdown will create more travel delays and hassles than safety or security issues.

Even before the shutdown, controllers have needed to work longer and harder to make up for the staffing shortfall.  -NATCA President, Paul Rinaldi

If the shutdown is protracted in terms of weeks, there will be air travel safety concerns which the government should be able to manage by reducing traffic volume – that is, cancelling flights. The primary concern at this moment, which will significantly increase the risk of an incident, is the availability of federal safety inspectors. If planes are not getting carrier inspection oversight, then the flying public needs to be concerned. 

If the shutdown is protracted in terms of months, then there will be a significant increase of risk of a major incident unless drastic measures are taken to significantly reduce the volume of flights throughout the National Airspace System. The volume of flights needs to be managed against the availability of qualified people to staff all operational elements of the end-to-end system. At some point, this could require the government to shutdown airports to shift staff to properly keep other airports operating. 


TSA Employees Call Out of Work

Several media outlets have reported that a significant number of TSA workers are failing to show up to work. For some airports, the situation is difficult as they are reporting 200-300% higher levels of personnel calling out of work than normal. Rather than risking passenger safety and security, the government is likely staffing key safety positions and transferring TSA staff from non-essential areas and reducing the number of security lines thus, increasing wait times.


Air Traffic Control Staffing Shortfall

More of a concern is the availability of air traffic controllers and the fact that the system was understaffed going into the shutdown. National Air Traffic Controller Association (NATCA) President, Paul Rinaldi, said in a statement “Even before the shutdown, controllers have needed to work longer and harder to make up for the staffing shortfall. Overtime in the form of six-day weeks and 10-hour days is common at many of the nation’s busiest and most short-staffed facilities including radar facilities in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas.” Having to deal with even greater staffing shortfalls and the personal pressures of getting a paycheck adds to an already stressful job. The only solution to keep the system safe is to reduce traffic volume. This means less capacity and the need for the carriers to cancel flights. If we do not see this start to happen, then the risk to the traveling public increases.


Furloughed Flight Safety Inspectors


On January 4th, the Huffington Post reported that furloughed safety inspectors said planes that haven’t been inspected for two weeks are still being used to transport passengers.

This is a significant concern. Each day that planes are not being inspected or properly inspected increases the risk that we will have a major incident. Lower traffic volume will help reduce this risk, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will need to address the concerns of planes not currently being inspected.

The risk posed by the alleged lack of safety inspections is partially mitigated by strong safety cultures at major US carriers, which will enable them to maintain safe operations even in the absence of safety inspectors. Their professionalism and strong safety cultures mean that they will almost certainly continue to follow the rules even if nobody is watching them to make sure they do so. The lack of safety inspectors is a greater concern for travelers flying on smaller carriers, as the safety cultures at some of these carriers may not be as robust.


Essential Safety Personnel

There are many other essential government personnel whose jobs directly impact aviation safety from systems technicians to maintenance personnel. An extended shutdown would likely force the FAA to defer maintenance on vital aspects of the US aviation infrastructure, including air traffic control and navigation equipment. A failure with such equipment would likely be more disruptive than dangerous, as all major aspects of the country’s aviation infrastructure have backup systems, but these backup systems often have lower capacity than the primary systems. Taking more flights out of service will help here as well, but there will be pressure to demand overtime which will increase the risk for mistakes.

As of the publication of this writing, the shutdown was ongoing. 


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