Regulatory, Safety

Feeling Strain, Aviation Industry Girds For Potential Longterm Government Shutdown

By Nick Zazulia | January 5, 2019
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U.S. President Donald J. Trump waves to the crowd as he exits Air Force One at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. Nov. 17, 2018. Trump was traveling to Butte County, California to visit those affected by the Camp Fire devastation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Colville McFee)

The U.S. government has been partially shut down since December 22, furloughing workers in "non-critical" agencies including much of the FAA and Department of Homeland Security during the busiest travel time of the year.

After a Friday meeting, President Donald Trump threatened to keep the government closed for months or years, if necessary. The President also told reporters that he could choose to declare a national emergency to get funding for the wall, but even after a Saturday meeting between Democrats and Republicans at the White House, no clear end is in sight.

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The uncertainty is proving problematic for the aviation industry.

Aviation industry officials said it would take time before the exact impact of the shutdown is known, but is already being felt. While TSA has been kept active during as critical during the shutdown, any projects have been put on hold. Nearing the weekend, unpaid TSA agents began calling out sick in droves, according to reports.

"Some carriers are beginning to see the effects of the government shutdown – specifically regarding certification of new aircraft and the implementation of new training programs for pilots, as well as training for air traffic controllers and other aviation employees," said a spokesman for Airlines for America. "We urge elected leaders to reach an agreement and reopen the federal government quickly."

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Senior Vice President Jim Coon said the shutdown will have "less of an adverse impact compared to previous occurrences" but the organization remains hopeful that the government will be "reopened as soon as possible."

The General Aviation Manufacturer's Association said it is surveying members for the effect of the shutdown on their business but does not yet have the results.

Air traffic controllers make up a large portion of the government's workers and contractors, some of whom are affected by the shutdown. The FAA has been taking steps to modernize its national airspace system to improve air traffic management and both major air traffic controller organizations strongly condemned the government shutdown.

“Political brinksmanship has no place in a 24/7 safety-critical operational environment," said Peter Dumont, president and Chief Executive of the Air Traffic Controllers' Association. "Air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals should be able to show up at work every day to do their jobs without the distraction of worrying about how they will make their next mortgage payment."

"Aviation is a huge driver of our economy, and while planes are still moving safely and efficiently, vital projects that enhance the national airspace system have been halted," he added. "In past shutdowns, legislation has passed that provides back pay to federal workers, including controllers, but government contractors providing critical technology to drive the modernization of the NAS have less assurance. The time it takes to shut down projects and then ramp them back up hampers innovation and progress. The safety of the flying public and the health of the global economy should never be treated as a bargaining chip on Capitol Hill.”

One such halted project is the Data Comm work being done by the FAA and air traffic controllers with the help of the national air traffic controllers' association (NATCA). Implementation of the controller-to-pilot messaging technology is already being significantly delayed by the shutdown according to NATCA Director of Safety and Technology Jim Ullman.

“The longer this goes on, the more this whole thing will slip to the right," Ullman said. "We will not know the full ramifications until we’re back. And even when we do get back, it will be at least 45 to 60 days before all of the training and deployment can begin."

According to Ullman, even if the shutdown doesn't extend as far as Trump is threatening, it could delay work at some of the centers by more than a year.

The shutdown will begin to have a big impact on commercial flights as well, according to NATCA President Paul Rinaldi. The FAA's Oklahoma City training academy is currently closed, with controllers already spread thin. According to the NATCA, if classes are delayed too long, they might be canceled for the semester, exacerbating the staffing shortage to the long-term detriment of American aviation.

"If the staffing shortage gets worse, we will see reduced capacity in the National Airspace System, meaning more flight delays," Rinaldi said in a statement. "A lack of adequate staffing also hurts the FAA’s ability to develop new technology and modernize the system, and controllers also don’t get the amount of time they need for training.”

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