Government shutdown leaves airlines in charge of the skies

FILE - In this. Dec. 27, 2009, file photo, passengers walk past US Airways planes at Reagan National Airport in Washington. The Justice Department asked for a delay in the trial over the merger of American Airlines and US Airways on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, because of the shutdown of the federal government. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

With the U.S. government in its third day of shutdown and an unprecedented number of Federal Aviation Administration inspectors on furlough, American skies now are more or less in the hands of the airline industry — a situation that could erode safety margins for air travel, industry experts and observers say.

More than 2,900 safety inspectors are not working, with no date set for their return, according to the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a labor organization representing FAA employees. “All of this decreases the safety margin,” says Mike Perrone, national president of PASS. “People have good intentions, but at the end of the day it’s about money. For right now, the airlines are on their own.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, posted the 2014 Plan for Appropriation Lapse and the news was grim — it dictates 15,514 staff suspensions among 46,070 at the FAA, or 34 percent of the workforce, including 2,490 in the Office of Aviation Safety. Employees and union officials say the totals are even higher.

Airlines for America, the industry’s major trade organization, said in a statement: “At this point, we do not expect airline operations to be impacted.” But the air traffic controllers’ union notes that those on the job are “working without pay” and essential support staff has been furloughed, suggesting “this is akin to a surgeon performing an operation without any staff to prep the room, clean the equipment, or provide support during the surgery.”

Ever since U.S. airlines were deregulated in 1978 and the government ceased micromanaging routes and fares, industry experts have debated what the right amount of oversight should be. But Washington’s shutdown has created a scenario only Ayn Rand could have imagined — with airlines policing their own operations now.

Safety concerns have arisen not necessarily because safety advocates think the worst of the airlines, but because the lack of a regulatory body is unprecedented, even during the 1996 government shutdown. As Perrone says, “It’s like driving on the highway when you know there are no police out there. Right now the airline industry is like kids in a candy store.”

Surveillance and spot inspections of airplanes, cockpits, tarmac operations, hangars and outsourced maintenance facilities are suspended, with only one manager answering phones at many of the FAA’s 105 key offices in the U.S. Dozens more overseas are shuttered. The FAA’s broad and critical responsibilities include not only maintaining air traffic control but certifying and inspecting airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers, and tens of thousands of licensed pilots, mechanics and other personnel, as well as overseeing the world’s largest general aviation system.

The FAA’s public affairs office is closed, but a spokeswoman sent this statement: “Safety is our top priority. …The FAA has prepared a contingency plan in which air traffic controllers and other essential employees will continue working in order to maintain the safety of the national airspace system. If the furlough extends longer than a few days, we will incrementally begin to recall specific employees back to work to meet continuing safety needs. These personnel may include safety inspectors, engineers, and technical support staff.”

John Goglia, a licensed aircraft mechanic and former board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the aviation system is not easily subjected to rapid shifts and changes that could occur under the shutdown scenario: “For most of the major carriers, their size is too great for quick changes," he said. "For two weeks without inspectors, there’s no change. But after that, it could deteriorate. Then there could be problems.”

The industry’s outsourced aircraft maintenance shops, which have become ubiquitous and are often located in countries where safety standards are lax to begin with, also create concerns, he said. On Wednesday, Goglia posted an opinion column asking if the U.S. is actually violating an international aviation treaty by removing inspectors.

Says Perrone: “God forbid there’s an accident. It will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.”

Experts note that residual effects will linger and are difficult to calculate, even after resolving the shutdown situation. After multiple "sequesters," spending cuts from earlier in the year many mistakenly thought would be restored, inspectors report FAA morale is at an all-time low. And continuity is disrupted, since catching up with a backlog will defer new projects. As the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO noted, "The air traffic management system will be suspended again, as it was during the partial FAA shutdown in 2011.”

For the FAA, perennially understaffed for years, the furloughs likely make a bad situation worse. For example, in June, the DOT’s inspector general reported: “For fiscal year 2013, FAA did not request any additional [safety inspector] positions, even though the staffing model projected a shortage of 389 positions.” And according to PASS, one-third of the FAA workforce will be eligible to retire in 2014.

For travelers: What to expect

Many passengers may not realize airline travel is dependent upon an alphabet soup of federal agencies, from the NTSB to the Agriculture Department. Here’s a brief rundown at press time:

• For now, Transportation Security Administration airport screening has been deemed essential, says a spokeswoman.

Customs and Border Protection also is scheduled to continue.

• The Association of Corporate Travel Executives reports that U.S. passports will continue to be processed, but offices located inside federal buildings might be closed. The Global Business Travel Association said: “During the 1996 shutdown, hundreds of thousands of passports went unissued and tens of thousands of visa applications went unprocessed.”

One notable irony is some airline executives have long derided government subsidies for Amtrak. But yesterday the for-profit rail line stated it will “continue normal operation” despite the shutdown.

William J. McGee is a longtime airline safety advocate and author of the book "Attention All Passengers." He teaches at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens, N.Y.