‘Something Has To Give’; How Long Can Planes Fly Without Aviation Safety Inspectors on the Job?
They are the regulators behind the scenes at the airport. You don’t know they are there when they are, but at the moment — due to the federal government shutdown — they’re not.
“Most of the time we’re invisible because we do a good job,” George Husted, a radar specialist who is currently furloughed without pay, said Tuesday during a protest outside Bradley International Airport. “Normally when people see us it’s when something really catastrophic happened.”
Outside BDL Tuesday night a handful of members from the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union (PASS) were letting air travelers know that the shutdown is impacting the safety of the country’s aviation system.
The demonstration came a day after the Federal Aviation Administration announced it would bring back about 800 of the 3,000 employees who were considered non-essential for safety and were sent home Oct. 1 without pay when the shutdown began.
“The FAA is constantly evaluating safety risk,” the agency said in a statement. “As the government shutdown continues, the agency will determine whether additional employees need to be recalled to provide oversight of potential risk.”
With little hyperbole and a few jokes, a diverse group of inspectors from various parts of the region spoke Tuesday about what the shutdown means for them, their families, and the more than 40 other inspectors and their support staff in the area.
Robert Berlyn, an aviation operations inspector, said his job is to go out and make sure the air carriers and the pilots and the flight attendants are doing “what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it.”
So how long can the system last before commercial airline travelers start seeing delays? Berlyn said there’s some redundancy in the system and commercial airlines have their own inspection process, but that process is overseen by his agency.
“It can go for a little while and be fine,” Berlyn said. “You’re probably going to ask me how long can it go? If I could answer that question, I’d be a wealthy man. That’s very hard to quantify.”
He said no one likes to have the inspectors inspecting their aircraft, but “we often find small insignificant events that can lead to larger events.”
“Catastrophes are usually the accumulation of otherwise insignificant events,” Berlyn said. “Everything we do is to protect the flying public.”
Linda Kaczmarski, who has been on the job for 33 years, said that as a single parent she’s very nervous about the lack of pay. She said she’s been staying home and keeping busy with projects around the house because stepping out the door inevitably means she’ll have to spend money on something. She said people ask her why she doesn’t just retire, and these days she jokes that it’s because there’s no one there to process the paperwork.
Mark Dunlap, a national legislative committee chair with PASS, said it’s not clear if the non-essential employees who were furloughed and will be brought back will receive pay. He said there’s a bill pending in the Senate that would require Congress to pay the non-essential workers if they return to work, but Dunlap said there are reports of some opposition to the bill.
“If this keeps going on day after day, week after week, month after month, there’s a potential for a very serious problem to happen. I don’t want to sound alarmist, I don’t think that helps anybody, but it’s true and people should definitely be concerned,” Dunlap said.
He said they were surprised when inspectors like Berlyn were classified as non-essential, because in past shutdowns or other government crises they’ve always been considered essential.
There are more than 40 aviation safety inspectors who have been furloughed at the airport. Across New England, about 130 inspectors and support staff have been furloughed. It’s unknown how many will be recalled.
“As this goes on the more apparent it becomes that we need to get these people back to work,” AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Lori Pelletier said.
She said the checks and balances they have on the airline industry are “essential.”
The inspectors oversee both commercial and general aviation aircraft, pilots, flight instructors, and domestic and foreign repair stations. They also do in-flight cockpit and ramp inspections and oversight of aviation mechanics, facilities, training programs, and equipment. They’re in charge of the production and publication of aeronautical charts and other documents and issue the registration certificates for all U.S. civil aircraft and airmen.
“We’re not allowed to get other jobs. We can’t collect unemployment, so basically this can only last a short time or we’re going to have to start looking for other work,” Husted said, adding that they all still have bills to pay and if the money isn’t coming in, “something has to give.”