I have no doubt that many of us who followed the news of a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over the summer were surprised, and perhaps even concerned. Questions that come to mind include: what exactly is a partial shutdown? Will flights be suspended? How could an agency that oversees a vital service such as air travel be allowed to experience a partial shutdown? If planes are still in the air, is the traveling public safe? As a civil engineer, and more specifically, a transportation engineer, I found this issue particularly interesting. Civil engineers are stewards of public infrastructure, which includes airport infrastructure, and our chief concern is ensuring public welfare.
Fortunately this partial shutdown did not affect the Nation’s air traffic controllers and airplane inspectors. Although airline service was not interrupted and federal officials, including President Obama, insisted that safety was not affected, this partial shutdown had serious consequences. In addition, a lack of long term authorization for the FAA creates additional challenges for FAA officials and airport executives. The gravest consequence, in terms of additional risk to safety, of this partial shutdown was the inability of the federal government to collect nearly $200 million a week in a fees and taxes that go to the national airport trust fund. Monies from this account are used to pay airport safety inspectors, whose job is to ensure that airports comply with federal regulations. Throughout the partial shutdown these inspectors worked without pay and charged expenses to their personal credit cards.
The fact that the safety of our Nation’s airports partly depended upon the good faith of airport inspectors to work for no pay is disconcerting. There were also economic consequences associated with this partial shutdown, seeing as it left thousands of FAA employees and tens of thousands of workers at airport construction projects out of work. Given the difficult economic situation facing many Americans, this hardly seemed an appropriate time to leaves thousands of people out of work. In the words of Transportation Secretary LaHood, “Because Congress didn’t do its work, FAA programs and thousands of public and private sector jobs are in jeopardy”.
Congress did fail to pass legislation authorizing or reauthorizing the FAA and there were, and are, disagreements between both parties and both chambers related to long term FAA authorization. There are also disagreements between the Administration and Congress related to the FAA authorization. I will further examine both the causes and effects of this impasse, and its impacts on the Nation’s air travel system. The results of this research will provide recommendations that could prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future, if such is the desire of the President and Congress.