As the political back and forth was getting underway in the disagreement between Congress and the Executive Branch about border security funding that led to the government shutdown two and a half weeks ago, I decided not to write about it. I figured that like other similar funding shortfalls, this one would be a long angry weekend and then back to business as usual. That has not been the case. Now on Day 19, the shutdown is real, and there’s no sign in sight of it coming to a quick end. Again, I hope I’m wrong about that, but the signs are not good.
At this point, the impact on aviation has been minimal. But, as you’re no doubt read elsewhere, that’s in large part because essential workers still need to show up for their jobs, even though the vast majority of them are doing so without getting paid for their time. Until recently, they hadn’t missed a paycheck. Now, that’s no longer the case. Most of them have missed at least one paycheck, and for many families that depend on a single breadwinner and live month to month, that can be devastating. For many others, the buffer is there for a month or two, or maybe three. But once you get past that, the likelihood that workers will be able to weather the shortfall diminishes to almost no one very quickly. It’s just the nature of economics in 2019.
The effect on aviation, again, hasn’t been big so far. The FAA gave permission to designated examiners to give checkrides. TSA agents are required to be at work. Controllers, too. And FAA maintenance personnel. But how long will that last? How long will it be before baggage screeners go looking for a job that pays them or that others find reasons to not show up at all, which has already been happening with some TSA agents, who are calling in sick. It’s apparently not a widespread problem, yet.
It’s only been one missed paycheck so far, and the disruption to the public has been minimal. But if the shutdown goes on for much longer, that will not be the case. We’ve already seen protests and demonstrations by affected workers and legislators from both sides of the aisle and the unavailability of basic services. And just think what things might look like in another two weeks or a month when large numbers of federal workers leave or just stop showing up for that demanding job they’re not getting paid to do.
Will aviation safety suffer as a result? It’s hard to argue that it hasn’t already suffered. Safety is a web of interdependent people and systems. As soon as you start weakening key elements of that system, the chances of bad things happening rise sharply. After all, safety isn’t about stopping an accident from happening, though that’s the end goal. It’s about short-circuiting the negative elements within a system and preventing them from taking root and leading to accidents. If you’ve flown into a Class B or Class C airport when the action of landing and taking off planes was in high gear, you know how finely tuned that machine is and what amazing work our controllers do. Now imagine cutting the infrastructure that supports that machine by 20 percent…or more. It’s a dangerous situation getting more so every day the shutdown continues.
From a practical point of view, what does this mean to us pilots and airplane owners? Well, any nonessential federal government business you might need to get done will have to wait? That could result in minor inconveniences or even big hassles, and how those will be resolved once the FAA opens up shop again, we’ll have to wait and see. Again, how negatively it affects pilots and owners will probably depend on how long this circus lasts. As for manufacturers, many are already stuck awaiting the resumption of FAA inspections and approvals on products they’re currently developing, and such delays endanger not only timely certification but customer contracts, all of which can cost plane makers big bucks down the road.
Is there a silver lining? Well, your chances of getting ramp checked right now are paper-thin. Enjoy that the next time you go flying. And while we’re at it, we should remember to thank a controller for their free service.