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Government Calls Back Furloughed Aviation Workers, But Gaps Will Remain


The Federal Aviation Administration is calling back to work thousands of safety inspectors, engineers and other employees. While this will allow the agency to resume some safety and oversight, NPR's David Schaper reports the shutdown is being strongly felt all across the aviation industry.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Long before you worm your way down the narrow airplane aisle, heave your bag into the overhead bin and squeeze yourself into that tiny seat, the fingerprints of many federal government employees have been all over that plane.

MIKE PERRONE: Everything that we do, we touch the aviation system.

SCHAPER: Mike Perrone heads the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, which represents a wide range of FAA inspectors, technicians, engineers and evaluators.

PERRONE: We do everything other than - the air traffic controllers talk to the pilots to get them, and the pilots fly the airplane. We are behind the scenes. We are all invested in making sure they've got the safest aviation system in the world.

SCHAPER: These specialists inspect and certify the planes and aircraft parts as airworthy and make sure the maintenance and mechanical work is done according to specs. Perrone says some help build air traffic control towers and radar facilities, while others license pilots and approve and certify pilot training.

PERRONE: And we have inspectors that actually get on the airplane, and they'll fly and watch the pilot's procedures, make sure that they're talking proper phraseology with the air traffic controllers.

SCHAPER: So as a result of the shutdown, pilot training is not being certified, new pilots are not being licensed, some accidents are not being investigated and some new planes are waiting to be certified.

With so many of these safety professionals sitting at home for much of the last four weeks, does Perrone think aviation safety has been compromised?

PERRONE: I think a layer of safety has been missing, absolutely. So the longer this goes on, the potential of more gaps.

SCHAPER: The FAA disagrees. In an emailed statement, a spokesman says the traveling public can be assured that the nation's airspace system is safe.

But after having only a few hundred of those safety inspectors, technicians and regulators working without pay for the first three-plus weeks of the shutdown, this week, the FAA began calling back thousands more.

John Cox is an aviation safety consultant and retired pilot, and he agrees safety has not been compromised yet, but...

JOHN COX: There is an unnecessary constraint on the aviation industry because of the shutdown.

SCHAPER: Cox says the FAA's air traffic controllers academy in Oklahoma City is closed, which could lead to a shortage of controllers in coming months.

COX: I think this is one of the unintended consequences of the shutdown. I think people didn't realize, or are just coming to realize, the ripple effect and how aviation is being disproportionately affected.

SCHAPER: Because of that, many in the aviation industry say it may take some sort of sickout by FAA or TSA workers leading to a slowdown of air traffic or even a grounding of flights in order to break the impasse. David Schaper, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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