08.03.11

The Shutdown Safety Scare

Congress' funding impasse has left dozens of airline safety inspectors working for free—and they were already stressed out to begin with. Eve Conant on the hazardous consequences.

Air-traffic controllers at New York’s La Guardia Airport have their view of several runways partly obscured by a partially demolished tower, compliments of a federally funded project abruptly halted last month when government money stopped flowing. Other airports have similar projects halted in midstream and are relying on federal inspectors who are now checking plane safety without pay because they were, technically, furloughed.

Welcome to Washington’s latest budget fiasco—one that slipped under the radar during the debt-default crisis but that has real consequences for Americans as they travel in the final weeks of summer.

In another sign of the dysfunction gripping Congress, lawmakers have not approved a full budget for the Federal Aviation Administration in about four years, fighting over the agency’s capital-expense plans and other issues. They had been funding the agency by passing temporary measures. But unable to resolve their differences, the lawmakers decided not to pass another temporary funding bill, shutting down large parts of the agency on July 23. It’s yet another Republican-Democratic face-off, this one focused on bickering over a push to end subsidies to rural airports—many of them in Democratic-dominant areas—and disagreement over anti-union legislation supported by the GOP.

President Obama is calling the partial shutdown a “Washington-inflicted wound on America.” And it’s unlikely to be healed any time soon.

That’s because exhausted lawmakers have fled Washington for a month’s summer recess until after Labor Day and did not resolve their differences despite one last attempt in the Senate on Tuesday that fell short. Their departure has left thousands of baffled and furloughed FAA workers in limbo, and some of the country’s aviation-safety experts worried about consequences in the weeks ahead.

“There is not an imminent safety threat that a plane is going to fall out of the sky, but there will be a gradual erosion in the confidence in the agency, and by the fall—if this continues—there will be more serious consequences of this,” says Michael Goldfarb, a former FAA chief of staff.

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Construction crews working on an air-traffic-control tower at Oakland International Airport were told to stop working after the House of Representatives refused to reauthorize funding of the FAA (Michael Nagle, Bloomberg News / Getty Images)

Goldfarb shares the sense of astonishment found among furloughed employees reached by The Daily Beast. Lawmakers “are leaving town just as one of the most important agencies in Washington is hobbled,” Goldfarb says.

The FAA has furloughed some 4,000 agency employees and shut down some 200 construction projects, expected to leave more than 70,000 construction workers out of work. Air-traffic controllers aren’t affected, and agency officials have repeatedly stressed that safety is not at stake. But the funding impasse clearly is already chipping away at the confidence of workers and travelers.

The 40 inspectors still on the job are working without salary while continuing to inspect planes. Agency officials hope to make them financially whole whenever Congress solves the budget impasse. In the meantime, they’re even putting their travel expenses on their personal credit cards, which will eventually max out.

“These are not hedge-fund managers,” Goldfarb says. “And they are already in stressful jobs.”

No one questions the dedication of federal workers who volunteered for such important duty. But experts caution there is a risk in relying on overworked and underpaid workers for too long.

(Update: On Thursday, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents the 40 inspectors, told The Daily Beast: "NATCA is now paying the expenses of these inspectors, all their travel expenses related to their work." Although that represented a glimmer of hope, currently there is no expectation the union will or can pay the expenses.)

“Aviation-safety inspectors are kind of like the USDA meat inspectors—there are so few of them, there’s no way they can get to everything,” explains Jeff Roy, a veteran former FAA inspector. The fact that they’re not getting paid, says Roy, “just exacerbates what was already the problem of having so few of them. This is not a good situation to be in.”

Roy says senior inspectors can make more than $100,000 a year, but their money has to run out sometime. They will ride in cockpits during flights for en route inspections, but must pay for lodging, food, gas, flights in some cases, and other expenses that can total $300 or more per day.

Then there are the less-noticed but important FAA technicians and engineers who are key to the long-term progress of air safety. They’re sitting at home with nothing to do but worry.

Fred Rasche is one of them. He’s an FAA engineer just outside Chicago who works on terminal radar-approach controls known as “tracons”—the dark rooms inside air-traffic-control towers where technicians hover over screens to direct flights once the controllers up in the towers can no longer physically see the planes. His latest project was to replace an outdated tracon—of which there are many across the U.S., with technology dating back 30 to 40 years—in Houston, a $100 million project now shelved.

“We’ll have to go deep in debt on our credit cards for the car and mortgage payments.”

He was a few days away from being part of a similar contract in Cleveland. “We’ve just sucked $40 million out of an already depressed state, and their old tracon is falling apart,” Rasche says. There’s also a project to update computers still operating in DOS—something many under age 35 may never have heard of. It’s a mess. “All our construction crews have been pulled off, and all our schedules are sliding to the right,” Rasche says.

And then there is his personal life. He and his wife have had to cash out some of their life-insurance policies, and will raid their two younger children’s college funds. He won’t be able to celebrate his 27th anniversary of working for the FAA this Thursday with anything but waiting for his unemployment to kick in.

“My wife and I sat down and went through our budget; it’s tough.” He wears glasses, and the vision part of his health insurance expires in 30 days. “We’ll have to go deep in debt on our credit cards for the car and mortgage payments. We had no warning on this; it’s not like we could even save a few paychecks.”

Or take Michael Weatherby, a computer specialist at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J. He’s doing chores around the house and worrying about bills, rather than plying his expertise at the facility, where all air-traffic-control systems are tested, modified, and upgraded. Part of his job is dealing with cybersecurity for what’s known as the National Airspace System—the giant aviation system that covers our country and surrounding oceans.

Just last month one NAS-system owner contacted Weatherby, fearful that his computer had been hacked into. It hadn’t, but Weatherby found serious security issues with the man’s servers and got him back on track. No one can call Weatherby now; he’s not allowed to work—and no one knows if and when that will change. “The government just took off. It’s hard to think that they care,” he says.

For any travelers considering taking a train instead, there’s little reassurance there. A new report from Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General found increasing concern over Amtrak’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack. Perhaps it’s time for that much-overdue “staycation.”