Government shutdown leaves airlines in charge of the skies

American skies now are more or less in the hands of the airline industry — a situation that could erode safety margins for air travel, industry experts and observers say.


US economy shutdown


With the U.S. government shutdown and an unprecedented number of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors on furlough, American skies now are more or less in the hands of the airline industry — a situation that could erode safety margins for air travel, industry experts and observers say.

More than 2,900 safety inspectors are not working, with no date set for their return, according to the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), a labor organization representing FAA employees. “All of this decreases the safety margin,” says Mike Perrone, national president of PASS. “People have good intentions, but at the end of the day it’s about money. For right now, the airlines are on their own.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, posted the 2014 Plan for Appropriation Lapse and the news was grim — it dictates 15,514 staff suspensions among 46,070 at the FAA, or 34 percent of the workforce, including 2,490 in the Office of Aviation Safety. Employees and union officials say the totals are even higher.

Airlines for America, the industry’s major trade organization, said in a statement: “At this point, we do not expect airline operations to be impacted.” But the air traffic controllers’ union notes that those on the job are “working without pay” and essential support staff has been furloughed, suggesting “this is akin to a surgeon performing an operation without any staff to prep the room, clean the equipment, or provide support during the surgery.”