Is It Safe to Fly When the Government Is Shut Down?

Spokesperson for FAA inspectors claim flying is less safe. Is it?

Posted Jan 11, 2019

Several of my fear of flying clients have emailed asking whether it is safe to fly during the government shutdown. Stories have been published claiming safety is impacted. People with a vested interest may tell reporters the shutdown impacts safety. I don't see how that is possible.

FAA Inspections

A spokesperson for FAA inspectors claimed it is less safe to fly now because they are not inspecting the planes. But FAA inspectors hardly ever look at an actual airliner. They inspect the paperwork—and the computerized record-keeping—that verifies inspections done by airline mechanics are up-to-date. 

If you get the idea I don't have a lot of respect for the FAA, you got it right. Not only do I not respect the FAA, people who work for the FAA don't respect the FAA. One FAA inspector told me, "The FAA is a 'paper tiger'. We inspect paperwork... that's the paper part, and we threaten the airlines with fines if the paperwork isn't perfect... that's the tiger part. But this paper chase has little to do with safety." He added, "The most important safety device on the plane is a unionized pilot."

The point he was trying to make is that that FAA is an ineffective bureaucracy that generates regulations and spot-checks records. Though FAA regulations require that a captain refuse to fly any airliner if she doubts its airworthiness, the FAA does nothing to back up a pilot who gets fired for refusing to fly a plane until it is fixed. On the other hand, pilots who work together can force airline management to respond to safety concerns.

My advice? Don't worry about it when a spokesperson for FAA inspectors makes statements like this. The airlines are going to do the inspections anyway because after the shutdown is over, the FAA can look back at records kept by the airline during the shutdown and levy large fines for any inspections not done. It doesn't really matter that the paperwork inspection pauses.

Security

TSA is required to inspect bags and passengers. For a passenger or a piece of luggage to be put on the plane, it has to be inspected. TSA will probably have people calling in sick and some leaving for other jobs. Waits for getting through security will be longer. But the inspection of passengers and bags has to be done. There may be delays or even cancellations

Air Traffic Control

If air traffic controllers are pressured to work extra hours to make up for controllers who call in sick, of course they will be less sharp if fatigued. Controllers are very good at what they do and can get the job done even if weary. The job is fast-paced. Some people find the pace stressful. Some—those who stay in the job—thrive on stress.

And if a controller makes a mistake that puts two planes on a collision course, pilots can take care of the problem. The TCAS system in the cockpit warns the pilots of possible mid-air collisions and tells them what to do to avoid a collision. We have had that system on all U.S. airliners since December of 1991. Since then, there have been no airliner collisions in the U.S.

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