Recent coverage in the Economist highlighted the clear impact of the US Government partial shut down on North America’s aviation safety.
The publication also highlighted the impact on air traffic controllers, pilots and other federal government staff who enable safe flights - from aircraft maintenance inspectors to airport-security personnel.
The partial Government shut down was paused on 25 January when President Trump signed a deal to reopen government for three weeks so that negotiations can continue on funding for the US-Mexico wall. The reopening came after a 35 day shutdown – the longest in American history.
It is estimated that the United States economy permanently lost about US$3 billion during the five week shutdown and the United States economy will be 0.02 per cent smaller in 2019 as a result. There are more significant effects for workers who went without pay during this time, especially federal contractors who are not guaranteed back pay. Many of these are low paid janitors, security guards and cafeteria workers at federal buildings.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers had been unpaid since 22 December. By 10 January the number of workers calling in sick was up 55% on the same day a year ago, according to TSA. Miami airport, for example, was forced to close one concourse due to a lack of TSA employees on duty, while waiting times at airport security across the country increased, potentially leading to less thorough screening of passengers.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ran short of aircraft inspectors. It was reported to be responding to requests from airlines (for example, to certify aircraft for flights) but it was not providing routine oversight of airline repair shops and operations - leaving those tasks to the airlines themselves.
“Do you like the fox watching the hen house?” one unpaid inspector told a journalist.
“Every day the government stays shut down, it gets less safe to fly.”
Airlines were reported to be doing their own rigorous inspections, in the knowledge they may be audited when government reopened according to a safety consultant and former TSA board member.
Pilots could not get their licences renewed from the FAA during the shutdown.
It was also reported that flights into New York’s LaGuardia airport, Philadelphia international airport and Newark Liberty international airport in New Jersey were delayed by staffing issues in air traffic control in the final days of the shutdown. This may have been a factor in the temporary re-opening of the Government.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) warned that the shutdown could have a ripple effect on staffing shortages for months or years to come, because training programmes for aviation-security officials were halted, a NATCA spokesperson told the Economist.
NATCA also announced it was taking a Temporary Restraining Order against the United States government for its violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
NATCA alleges that the government unlawfully deprived NATCA members of their earned wages without due process.
“We are already in a critically staffed situation, and with the shutdown, the training pipeline has been cut short and there is no relief in sight.”
The Government shutdown could resume from 15 February if Congress fails to reach a funding deal, with the possibility of President Trump declaring a national emergency and using military funding to build the wall.
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