What Does an FAA Shutdown Mean for US Airline Safety?

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November 10, 2011

When 4,000 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) workers and 70,000 affiliated contract workers were furloughed in late July, due to a partial shutdown of the FAA, American travellers were left to ponder whether such a drastic workforce reduction has implications for the safety of commercial jet travel. The origin of the layoffs was a political deadlock in the U.S. House and Senate over funding for rural air service in some parts of the country as well as collective bargaining rights for airline employees.

Congress passed a stop-gap funding bill, but experts fear that further shutdowns are looming. Commentators have expressed concern about our politicians' inability to put aside partisan political disputes that have kept the FAA in perpetual funding limbo since 2007.

While safety inspectors and air traffic controllers were not affected by the partial FAA shutdown, many engineers, inspectors and other employees involved in airport projects were idled. That means delays to terminal improvements, navigational system upgrades and designs of runway stoplight systems - all important developments that make American air travel safer.

Long-Term Investments in American Air Travel Infrastructure

The latest political obstacle is a failure by Congress to reconcile distinct House and Senate bills passed earlier this year to provide long-term funding for the FAA. Full appointment to the conference committee that will work out the differences in these bills has not yet occurred.

One example of the types of delays that would result from further political stalemates is the massive construction project of the Tom Bradley Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), a $1.5 billion project at one of the nation's busiest air travel hubs. The July/August furlough took 130 engineers away from their duties related to various capital improvements at LAX. Other associated problems around the country included lack of funds for acquiring property for airport expansion when $2.5 billion in FAA grants were delayed.

U.S. airline accidents result from many factors, including design defects, human factors and corporate negligence. Smart planning and timely implementation of infrastructure improvements cannot overcome every one of these problems, but recreational and business travellers are right to expect that political issues should not impede airport safety improvements.