Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Federal Aviation Administration Recalls 800 Safety Staffers Furloughed by Shutdown: Union Leaders Still Worry About Disruptions to Air-Traffic-Control System

Updated Oct. 8, 2013 8:47 p.m. ET

By  Andy Pasztor

The Wall Street Journal 


The Federal Aviation Administration is ending furloughs for some 800 inspectors and other safety staff, but union leaders said they still worry the partial government shutdown threatens to significantly disrupt the nation's air-traffic-control system.

FAA officials on Tuesday worked out details for recalling about 15% of roughly 5,000 agency safety inspectors, airline-oversight staff and traffic-control support personnel furloughed as a result of the shutdown. But the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents some of the returning workers, along with about 15,000 front-line controllers, called the step a "piecemeal approach" that won't resolve "a mess of enormous proportions [that] must be stopped."

From the outset of the eight-day budget battle, air-traffic controllers were declared essential employees, and they remain protected from furloughs. But if the impasse drags on for another week or two, said NATCA President Paul Rinaldi, funding shortages in other traffic-control accounts—including technical support and training—will damage the overall system and eventually may cause flight delays.

NATCA officials on Tuesday said the furloughs hadn't resulted in capacity cutbacks or constraints anywhere in the traffic-control network.

Even before the shutdown, the FAA deferred or stretched out maintenance on aging radars and other essential equipment needed to track planes and help controllers keep them separated.

"The clock is ticking, and we're already on borrowed time," said Mr. Rinaldi, who in the past has generally refrained from criticizing the FAA and lawmakers amid budget clashes. "We're going to have equipment go down and be unable to bring it up quickly," he said.

In an interview prior to the FAA's decision, the union chief also said that since classroom instruction essentially has stopped and many on-the-job training efforts remain largely suspended, it would be more difficult to keep busy airport towers and en route control centers adequately staffed with fully certified controllers in the long term.

Even as additional FAA employees are likely to be recalled to work shortly, the furloughs already have prevented deliveries of some new jetliners by European plane maker Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co.

Separately, various aviation trade groups complained FAA personnel weren't processing aircraft registration documents, effectively blocking sales, purchases and financing of U.S.-registered aircraft. A Boeing Co. spokesman said in a statement Tuesday its jets in South Carolina will be able to be delivered with the return of the FAA staffers.

The FAA said Tuesday's employee recall covered safety inspectors responsible for companies manufacturing "the most critical aviation parts and products," as well as those providing "oversight of major airlines throughout the country."

To investigate private plane crashes, the agency's statement said, the FAA basically plans to rely on information collected from local law enforcement, but it intends to recall additional personnel if warranted by "an urgent, high-risk" safety issue.

Barring a breakthrough, Mr. Rinaldi predicted the budget pain is likely to escalate for already-strapped traffic-control facilities. The training academy for student controllers has been shut down since the spring, amid across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration. Now, thanks to the shutdown, it is unclear when it will reopen. Each year, about 1,000 fledgling controllers pass through the academy as their first step toward becoming fully certified controllers, which can take several years.

Mr. Rinaldi said the current suspension of new hires and the halt in academy graduates endangers replacements for thousands of veteran controllers due to retire in the next three years.

Important parts of a controller's training occur on the job, under the supervision of more experienced coworkers. But under current budget constraints, according to Mr. Rinaldi, some trainees have been sent home because they aren't considered essential employees, and veterans don't have the time to supervise others.

A spokeswoman for Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents a total of about 9,000 FAA inspectors and air-traffic-control technicians, said that "for every minute these inspectors are off the job, the backlog of their oversight and surveillance" tasks continues to grow.

With nearly one-third of the FAA's overall 46,000 work force still on furlough, including more than 2,000 inspectors in its Flight Standards Service, agency and union officials expect further staffing increases to ensure adequate day-to-day oversight of airlines, repair facilities, pilot-training schools and other parts of the industry. But bare-bones personnel levels also have affected longer-range projects. For example, joint industry-government efforts to redesign airport approaches and develop recurrent training programs for controllers have been stymied. Even drug- and alcohol-testing programs have been affected, prompting the FAA to bring back 25 doctors and support staff to work in the Office of Aerospace Medicine.

—Jon Ostrower   contributed to this article.


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