The nearly three-week-long U.S. government shutdown is becoming more costly and problematic, taking an increasing toll on government workers and contractors, exports and imports, and key aviation research projects, industry and worker representatives say.
Much of the government shut down on December 22 for the third time in 2018 as Congress and the White House reached a stalemate on border wall funding, holding up passage of appropriations bills for numerous federal agencies, including the Departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, and Commerce.
At the FAA alone, 17,791 workers not involved in “life and safety” positions remain on furlough. The furloughs involve activities such airmen certificate issuance, NextGen development, unmanned systems exemption, aviation rulemaking, facility security inspections, routine background checks, air traffic control specialist development, certain drug testing, dispute resolution, and air traffic performance analysis, among many others.
However, as a result of the most recent FAA reauthorization bill, the aircraft registry remains open. ATC, maintenance of ATC equipment, field inspections, and “limited” aircraft certification activities also continue.
But while the furlough affects nearly 18,000 FAA workers, Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) president and CEO Eric Fanning pointed out that, government-wide, 800,000 federal workers are either furloughed or working without pay.
Along with delayed funding and the missed paychecks that “most sharply affect government employees,” the AIA noted the ripple effects, such as an inability to process export licenses with the lapse of funding for the Departments of State and Commerce, thereby delaying delivery of products to foreign countries.
Further, government contractors cannot work and the shutdown has suspended major research projects at the FAA, NASA, and NOAA. Government-industry stakeholder meetings also remain on hold.
“Every day the shutdown lasts, the impacts grow and become more difficult and more expensive to fix,” Fanning said. “It’s time to get these dedicated public servants back to work.”
While air traffic controllers have remained on the job, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association called the shutdown unacceptable and warned that it is hampering training to a point where fewer fully trained controllers are on the job than at any point in the last 30 years. The suspensions include activities at the FAA training academy in Oklahoma City.
“This staffing crisis is negatively affecting the National Airspace System, and the shutdown almost certainly will make a bad situation worse,” NATCA president Paul Rinaldi said. “Even before the shutdown, controllers have needed to work longer and harder to make up for the staffing shortfall.”
NATCA and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) further joined forces to highlight ramifications on key NextGen projects such as controller pilot data link communications (CPDLC) or DataComm.
“The training for DataComm has a very specific performance schedule,” said NATCA director of safety and technology Jim Ullmann. “Because the timeline is so structured and the training so critical and time-consuming, it places additional pressure on employees who are operating with only 83 percent [on average] of the staffing target at their facilities. This shutdown will delay the implementation of DataComm in many centers by up to a year.”
“Due to the shutdown there will be significant delays to this program,” added ALPA president Joe DePete. “If the shutdown continues, air traffic controllers and pilots previously trained on the system will lose their proficiency due to a lack of use, and re-training will likely be required. The need to re-train will add costs and will no doubt delay the progress of this important airspace system upgrade.”
Airport security screeners also remain on the job, but American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) national president David Cox emphasized the harm the shutdown has caused the Transportation Security Administration workforce. "TSA officers already have the least amount of rights of any federal officer, some of the lowest pay and highest attrition rates in government, and among the lowest morale of any federal agency,” Cox said, noting the workforce has dropped from 47,000 to 44,000 with steady attrition. “Working for weeks on end without being compensated—while already being short-staffed—only makes their situation worse."
News reports have suggested “sickouts” taking place with TSA screeners, leading to longer lines. NATCA, meanwhile, disputed reports that air traffic controllers have followed suit, saying it is not aware of higher levels of sick requests. “Air traffic controllers treat their jobs with the highest standard of professionalism,” a NATCA spokesman said.
The National Air Transportation Association further pointed to “numerous reports of failed attempts to obtain ferry permits or add aircraft” to charter fleets with the closure of the FAA Flight Standards District Offices (FSDOs). The shutdown also has hampered the ability of Designated Airworthiness Representatives to perform their functions, the association said, adding it continues to work with the FAA on the issue.