Aircraft Accidents and the Government Shutdown

This past week the Federal Government shut down; the politicians could not – refused to – find common ground in order to keep the government open.  It is not, for purposes of this article, important what the differences in opinion are; this is not a political argument.  What is important are the effects the shutdown has on any and all in our American society.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: politicians and bureaucrats act this way, not out of any noble cause; their reasons are selfish.  As citizens, we have all heard the arguments framed by politicians.  Responsibility for funding the necessities of government should not to be trivialized; Departments, e.g. Defense, are not Chess pieces for politicians to bargain and move.

The belief is that when the government shuts down, time stops.  However, there is no Bugs Bunny air brake handle drawn from out of nowhere; no suspended animation device as in a Twilight Zone episode.  Safety infractions continue to happen, whether people are looking or not.  In regards to aviation, Congress would have you believe that nothing of consequence happens during the time they are holding their breath and kicking their feet.  The truth is that airlines continue to fly, medical helicopters are being operated and aviators will violate the Federal Aviation Regulations, especially in the absence of inspectors.

The costs associated with a Shutdown far exceed the normal excesses of government.  The infamous $435 Hammer and $640 Toilet Seat are tame extravagances in comparison to the lost dollars from even one day of a Government Shutdown (GS).  In the aviation industry, these costs pale next to the safety challenges created by cancelled surveillances, lost safety meetings or the deferring of certifications.  But, to make my point, let’s look at a routine disruption Congressional game-playing causes, namely Training.

There are dozens of sub-departments in the President’s fifteen Cabinet Departments, e.g. Transportation, Defense, Labor, State, etc.; each sub-department is engaged in the work required for it by the American people.  For purposes of this article, let’s look at Training requirements at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is one part of the Department of Transportation (DOT); it is an easily measurable expense and open to public scrutiny.

An average FAA training class holds about fifteen to twenty people; these classes may be occupied by, e.g. FAA personnel, Industry technicians or International overseers.  There are usually eight to ten classes being run simultaneously, which places the number of students at about two hundred students at any given time.  Since a GS has no specific end date, the students must be sent home at a cost of about $500 per student for rebooked flights, penalties and future return flights.  Then there are per diem costs, e.g. food – $60/day; hotel costs – $95/day; baggage fees, rental cars, airport parking fees, airport transportation, the added cost per day of being held over a two-day weekend.  These costs are available for public viewing at the General Services Administration website.

After that, let’s not forget the cost of instructors; the fees above apply to each instructor, an average of two per class, for the entire training period missed.  For just the FAA, the Training costs for shutting down the Federal Government for just one day are in excess of $200,000.  This price does not include the costs leveled at the private businesses who sent their people from Industry and International sources to the FAA for training; costs that are not refundable.  The FAA is one Administration (sub-department) under the DOT; the DOT is one Department in the President’s Cabinet.  The point: perhaps millions of dollars, across the government, are wasted, just in rescheduling for required Training.

Training is one small cog in the daily responsibilities of a government department, e.g. the FAA.  However, the FAA’s responsibility to the aviation industry is to provide oversight; to assure certificate holders are conducting business safely, preventing accidents and providing American citizens safe passage in all modes of aviation.  The FAA’s other responsibilities include approving certifications, from approving a repair station for its certificate to operate, to approving runs for an airline’s new aircraft.  These are overwhelming responsibilities where industry aviators outman government overseers, several thousand to one.

Oversight is the FAA’s main function.  In order to assure the continued safety, the FAA must provide oversight of, e.g. an airline’s programs.  They accomplish this by employing Data Collection: proving that programs work by collecting information, e.g. engine monitoring, structural inspection findings; Risk Analysis: taking that information and analyzing it to prevent future safety issues and accidents; and On-site Surveillance: the personal viewing of goings on at the airline.

Interruptions in the daily routine of oversight can impact the airline directly.  In some cases, FAA visits planned weeks in advance would be canceled due to a GS; planned maintenance or flight operations would have to be rescheduled so as to reroute equipment in or until another aircraft is slotted for a phase check.  These costs include fuel to relocate an airliner; the costs of pulling that airliner out of service; and lost revenue from dissatisfied customers resenting the inconvenience.  Costs for cancellations, rescheduling or, even, shuffling aircraft and flight crews, would run into the tens-of-thousands of dollars in costs to the airline and its contract maintenance facility.  According to the length of the GS, the FAA might have to put off surveillance for weeks, which dominoes into months, affecting the very safety of the airline and the contract maintenance facility under surveillance.  Result: safety is negatively affected for the flying public.

Businesses, like Repair Stations, are required to undergo a strict certification process.  This process can take months, arranging demonstrations for approval or waiting for revision approvals to manuals and procedures.  Even a short GS could put these certification milestones off for weeks, costing the Repair Station a lot of money in start-up costs and lost business.

Since oversight and surveillance are an ongoing process all over the United States, rescheduling these events costs money; airlines and other travel organizations do charge for cancellations or re-ticketing fees.  The expense of moving aircraft around for inspections; lost time for a grounded aircraft; overtime wasted covering a cancelled event; these are expenses that can hurt the certificate holder for circumstances beyond their control.  The costs are then passed onto the customer, whether the air carrier flies passengers or boxes.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Department of Defense conduct mandatory inspections and audits of FAA regulated certificate holders.  EASA has to cancel appointments when the FAA is on GS, incurring more expense for the FAA.  These expenses – both industry-wide and world-wide – run in the millions.  Again, these costs are for one sub-department answering to one Department in the President’s Cabinet.

It’s been said that the cost to government is minimal due to a government shutdown.  Maybe it’s true the average government employee doesn’t feel the impact of the costs.  That is not to say they aren’t aware of the impact, just that they are helpless to stop it.  In the 1972 movie, The Godfather, Peter Clemenza tells Michael Corleone, “These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years.  Helps to get rid of the bad blood.”  Government Shutdowns aren’t like that; they don’t ‘gotta happen’; they are unnecessary.  Shutdowns put the very safety of the American public at risk.

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