Seven of the largest agencies of the U.S. government have been closed since December 22, 2018, with no end in sight as of this writing. During a shutdown, “essential” employees who perform critical operations in government are required to work without pay while “non-essential” employees are furloughed without pay. As of January 12, 2019, the ongoing shutdown is the longest in U.S. history.
The agencies affected by the shutdown include two with an immediate impact on aviation: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)) and the Department of Transportation (including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)). Below is a summary of aviation-related regulatory functions that are directly affected by the shutdown.
About 51,000 essential TSA screening officers are currently working without pay. These officers conduct security screening of passengers, baggage, and cargo at airports to prevent deadly or dangerous objects from being transported on commercial aircraft. As the shutdown continues, there have been reports of a growing number of TSA personnel calling out sick. DHS, however, has consistently claimed that staffing levels have been maintained and that there are no unusual delays in the processing of passengers at U.S. airports.
Despite government assurances, however, concerns remain: TSA reported that its workforce at Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport experienced a 5.5 percent call-out rate on January 4, 2019, compared to a 3.5 percent rate on an average day. A TSA union representative has said that some TSA screeners have left their jobs since the government shutdown began and others are considering quitting for financial reasons. As of January 14, 2019, terminals at Houston’s George Bush International Airport (IAH), Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL), Miami International Airport (MIA), and Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) have been partially or totally closed at times due to TSA screener shortages. Depending on the severity of call-outs, passengers at U.S. airports may experience processing delays while proceeding through airport security. The government cannot hire additional staff during a shutdown to fill vacancies. Additionally, training for new screening officers has been disrupted, threatening longer-term staffing problems in the future.
Among other functions, the FAA conducts air traffic control (ATC) of U.S. airspace. Roughly 10,000 FAA air traffic controllers are working without pay during the shutdown, while 18,000 FAA employees are furloughed. The furloughed employees include technicians and other experts who maintain ATC equipment.
So far, the FAA reports that safety has not been compromised as controllers continue to work unpaid and serve the aviation industry. However, due to a chronic shortage of qualified controllers, staffing was an issue for the FAA even before the shutdown. A prolonged shutdown may cause increased numbers of controllers to retire or to seek other employment, exacerbating ATC staffing shortfalls. This could result in systemic flight delays or cancellations. Moreover, the FAA’s ATC training academy is closed and a longer delay may cause the FAA to cancel the current training semester, resulting in a severe shortage of qualified controllers after the government reopens.
Unlike controllers, most FAA safety inspectors are furloughed for the duration of the shutdown. Inspectors oversee air carrier operations and maintenance, certification of aviation personnel and equipment, and authorize the addition of aircraft to air carrier fleets. The commercial aviation industry has shown that it can continue to operate safely even without the FAA’s inspectors, as the industry has become largely self-regulating. Inspections of air carriers, international airlines operating to/from the United States, and air taxis, have been greatly reduced during the shutdown. This is beginning to raise some concern among the traveling public.
Further, furloughed inspectors are unable to complete everyday tasks like signing off on the addition of newly acquired aircraft to a carrier’s fleet. This would mean that recently delivered aircraft (presumably the newest and safest aircraft in the world) are sitting unused on the ground rather than flying the public because inspectors are unavailable to complete the necessary paperwork. In addition, furloughs may delay the FAA’s ability to approve an environmental assessment that is required for the resumption of commercial air services at Paine Field, Washington, which is planned to occur on February 11, 2019.
Although not strictly safety-related, one exception to the partial closure of the FAA is its aircraft registry that remains open. However, for those transactions that involve a non-citizen trust registration, or other non-routine arrangements, the FAA registry counsel’s office is furloughed, and legal review of those registrations cannot take place.
As the record-breaking shutdown continues, the FAA has announced that it may begin to allocate resources in order to recall an undisclosed amount of inspectors and technicians to resume safety inspections. No formal plans have been disclosed by the FAA as of this writing.
A resolution of the partial federal government shutdown impasse is not on the horizon. Meanwhile, the aviation industry, a vital national industry sector and economic driver, continues to operate with limited safety oversight and strained security screening and ATC operations.