I hesitate to use this month’s space to discuss the U.S. government’s shutdown since it’s likely to be concluded by the time you read this, so I’ll keep the following focused on aviation-related issues and the potential long-term impact.
In fact, it’s the lack of any impact at all on everyday flight operations that has made the shutdown something of a non-event for many of us. One may still obtain a pre-flight briefing from Flight Service, get a takeoff clearance and file/fly IFR, or obtain an uncomplicated medical certificate. Perhaps most important in the big picture, airliners are coming and going as they were before.
For many others, however, there’s been a significant impact. For example, the FAA’s Aircraft Registry is shuttered. This affects aircraft brokers looking to close deals, plus delivery of new aircraft, as well as registration renewals. Also and according to published reports, the agency furloughed some 3000 aviation safety inspectors. During the shutdown’s second week, the FAA recalled about 800 of them to oversee airline operations and some critical portions of the manufacturing process.
But the functions performed by those inspectors remaining on furlough aren’t getting performed: Required checkrides are going unflown, and paperwork on things as varied as major repairs or alterations, along with approvals under FAR Parts 135 and 141, isn’t being processed. Aircraft accidents aren’t being investigated by the NTSB or the FAA, to which the Safety Board often delegates its investigative authority. Some public airports sited in areas maintained by the National Park Service are Notam’d closed. All furloughed employees are going without paychecks for the duration, even those who have been recalled and are back at their jobs.
I’m sure many readers applaud these events and the overall shutdown of non-essential services as a way to reduce what they may consider an out-of-control federal government. Later this fiscal year, however, these chickens will come home to roost.
As I noted above, the shutdown probably will have ended by the time this issue reaches you. But the fallout will be felt for some time to come. Any ongoing lack of adequate funding for basic FAA operations likely will translate into additional moves by the agency to close non-federal control towers, and perhaps some lower-activity facilities the agency operates directly. Seasoned inspectors and examiners may leave for greater stability in the private sector. Reduced staffing levels could further impact timely processing of Forms 337, aircraft registrations, medical certificates and more.
The FAA’s natural reaction will be to seek additional, dedicated revenues enabling it to maintain and expand its operations. That easily could result in user fees on general aviation, at rates far in excess of what’s been proposed before. — Jeb Burnside