SHUTDOWN not impacting SAFETY now
Regulation imposes on Operators HIGHEST SAFETY duty
Safety Systems work now and capture errors
Professionalism of FAA workers deals with stress pre- and post-SHUTDOWN
Without regard to one’s politics, the SHUTDOWN is a mess. Such issues allow our elected officials to generate a lot of hyperbole. That information, in turn, is filtered by the media. The result is not “fake news” because the impact of the SHUTDOWN on the FAA is so complicated over a timeline, over the FAA employees and over the aviation industry.
[A FEW EXAMPLES OF THE PRESS COVERAGE—good, bad and indifferent.]
Here is an attempt to provide insight on SHUTDOWN AND SAFETY by two who “lived” through furloughs. Not speaking ex cathedra, this perspective may not be absolutely correct. It is an effort to share insights.
- AVIATION SAFETY REGULATOR AND REGULATED
The FAA and the airlines/GA pilots/OEMs/etc. are not codependent. By statute each has an intendent duty to perform at the highest levels of safety. The FAA has never depended on a 100% surveillance of the regulated nor was such a goal feasible.
As the regulatory regime has evolved, the Aviation Safety Inspectors receive data from the certificate holder and that information creates prioritized risks for the two collaborating organizations jointly review. Under the SHUTDOWN, the airlines still assess those numbers, assess them and initiate remedial actions. Without the government present, the decisions are not final [for recently certificated organizations, it is possible that the action would be delayed because the process has not yet matured.] There may be instances in which the remedial plan is so significant that the carrier might request that an FAA person be made available.
Under this regulatory regimen, SAFETY is not at risk. More importantly, fifty years of aviation regulatory history confirms that the certificate holders do not intentionally violate the regulations.
In the event that an airlines does violate an FAR, the data systems should capture the event(s). This is extremely likely under the new, innovative Compliance/Cooperation/Collaboration philosophy which encourages reporting of errors without punishment. What happens will be recorded during the SHUTDOWN. The errors will be subject to correction once things return to normal.
Furthermore, the airlines are extremely aware of the public’s concerns about the SHUTDOWN and are likely to be even more cautious while this crisis is so visible.
The SHUTDOWN is affecting aviation in a way that may defer SAFETY pluses in the intermediate and/or long term. A major FAA mission is approving applications for airframes, powerplants, pilots, avionics, new maintenance facilities and procedures. The purpose of those requests for necessary authority from the REGULATOR is to advance safety; the SHUTDOWN will delay these reductions of the margins of error. No diminution of SAFETY now, but benefits may be deferred.
Again, the SHUTDOWN is not lessening safety NOW, but the delays in installing NextGen technology means that these improvements in air navigation and efficiency are being pushed back on their s=implementation schedule. No impact no, no diminution, just lost time in upgrade.
2. REGULATORs AND TIME
There are two distinct categories of FAA employees—those deemed “essential” and those classified as “unessential” (for a full legal explanation of these differences, read Shutdown Blues at the USDOT, FAA, and NTSB ). Those OPM terms have impacts which are financial and psychological.
A significant number of women and men, most visibly those working in air traffic and airways facilities, are reporting to duty. They are literally indentured, compelled to do work without compensation NOW. The argument has been made that these individuals are being distracted by the absence of any pay.
These are professionals whose careers, without any SHUTDOWN, depend on their ability to separate their work from their personal lives. When they report to work, their personal integrity and dedication to performing their jobs at the highest levels predominate over any outside distractions. Mortgages, familial problems and the full panoply of stresses experienced in contemporary America are as much of controllers’ lives as the general populace. They have learned how to focus on their critical tasks.
Centers, towers and TRACONs involve layers of supervision. If an individual’s performance deteriorates on any day, there are procedures to correct these problems. During the SHUTDOWN, there is greater awareness by all levels of management that there is exogenous sources of potential stress.
These observations are also relevant to the other individuals, deemed essential, and working without pay. They, too, have to cope with outside stresses in their normal daily work life.
So, it is fair to conclude that the essential FAA employees are extremely vexed by the SHUTDOWN, but they are all so professional that they are not likely to allow that to diminish their contribution to the FAA SAFETY mission.
The FAA senior management (the initial decision as essential/nonessential and this change have likely involved input/commands from DOT and the White House) has recently adjusted the numbers of positions NOW CONSIDERED essential to the FAA’s mission. These persons will further add to the safety margin.
Looked over time, the SHUTDOWN is another wound inflicted on these career civil servant. It seems as though no elected official has shown his/her appreciation for the work done by these dedicated employees since President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address in 1961. That legislators argue about a Wall on the border and hold hostage the fundamental right to pay of all federal employees further insults both those going to work and those staying home.
In the near term, a few of the FAA employees may return to work with less enthusiasm about their assignments, but that number is miniscule. What is likely is the next time, that a report’s deadline may need a few more hours of work to meet the due date, the person’s morale will not meet the challenge.
The timing of the SHUTDOWN’s greatest intermediate impact on aviation will be seen when thousands of air traffic controllers are deciding whether they should retire. Memories of this time without pay likely will weigh heavy on their choice. SAFETY will not be impacted but capacity may be restrained by understaffing.
Probably the most impactful aspect of this continued assault on the dignity of civil servant is future recruitment. Top students, when considering what to do upon graduation, will rank work with their government low on their lists.
The SHUTDOWN’s impact on SAFETY has drawn a lot of advocacy to urge the President and Congress stop this madness. Multiple aviation groups- unions and trade associations- help a rally on Capitol Hill.
In a rare moment of unity among all of the aviation organizations ALL signed a letter to the President and the leaders of the House/Senate.
A perfectly rational request that this stand off stop may or may not have impact on these audiences. NB the letter does not assert that the SHUTDOWN will have an immediate SAFETY.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) sued the U.S. federal government on behalf of members who have not received pay for work done during the SHUTDOWN. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, NATCA alleges violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and that the government has “unlawfully deprived NATCA members of their earned wages without due process” in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
These efforts will heighten the public’s pressure on Congress and the President. Unless and until there is serious reform of the federal workplace, another SHUTDOWN will reoccur.
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