Commercial, Regulation

Government Shutdown Hearing: Modernization Threatened, Staffing Uncertain

By Nick Zazulia | February 13, 2019
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The U.S. Capitol building, where the House Subcommittee on Aviation held its hearing. (Matthew Tietje)

The U.S. Capitol building, where the House Subcommittee on Aviation held its hearing. (Matthew Tietje)

Presidents of five major aviation groups appeared before Congress Wednesday to testify on the impact of the 35-day government shutdown and support the bill that would ensure consistent funding for the FAA in the event of a future shutdown.

With only two days left in the continuing resolution that restarted the government for three weeks and ended the partial shutdown after delays and stoppages at major airports impacted travelers around the country, members of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure are trying to get a feel for how far-reaching the shutdown’s effects will be and how dangerous another one would be if the bill, penned by Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, and Aviation Subcommittee Chair Rick Larsen, D-Washington, fails.

Representatives from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), Airlines for America (A4A), Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) testified before the Aviation Subcommittee on the experiences of their members during the shutdown, its impact and what the aviation industry needs going forward. They also brought a letter signed by those groups and 35 other industry organizations urging Congress to pass H.R. 1108, the proposed Aviation Funding Stability Act of 2019.

“I’ve never seen the industry come together like we have around this,” said AFA-CWA International President Sara Nelson.

A4A President and CEO Nicholas Calio echoed that notion, saying “the entire industry is galvanized and united as never before” in support of H.R. 1108, which would allow the FAA to pull from the Airports and Airways Trust Fund, which it continually pays into, to sustain itself and its programs without Congressional appropriations in the event of a shutdown.

“The FAA is unique,” said Rep. DeFazio. “It pays for itself. Why should they be subject to a shutdown? It’s critical. It’s internationally critical.”

It is not yet clear what the bill’s chances are of getting through the House, let alone passing the Senate, or what changes the scant, three-page bill would undergo in markup along the way, but a number of Congressmen in the hearing expressed support.

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Michigan, said he would support the bill if the law were changed so that Congress did not receive pay during government shutdowns, an opinion voiced by multiple lawmakers, particularly Republicans.

While Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Massachusetts, took his time to oppose the notion that Congress would give up its pay and pin the shutdown on President Trump, DeFazio took a more issue-focused approach.

“Shutdowns are stupid no matter who is in the White House,” the committee chair said. “It’s a stupid way to get leverage in this town, this isn’t a partisan issue.” DeFazio said he ultimately wants to ensure funding for all agencies through government shutdowns to prevent their use as a bargaining chip.

One of the biggest concerns shared by Congress and the aviation industry is the impact of shutdowns on modernization efforts. Congress first called for what would become NextGen nearly two decades ago, the 2020 ADS-B mandate is looming, several new entrants to commercial airspace using new technology need to be accounted for and the industry is expected to grow a great deal over the next 20 years.

Each shutdown, of which there have been three during the NextGen program — 16 days in 2013, 3 days in early 2018, and the recent 35-day shutdown — has cascading effects that last much longer than the length of the shutdown, according to Calio.

“The start and stop on NextGen is considerable,” he said. “Every time the government shuts down, we have to turn off these projects. It has a real impact, and it’s cumulative over the years. You can’t make up [the lost time]. You can’t just flip the switch back on.”

Each shutdown entails lengthy time planning for a shutdown, the furlough time, then significant time getting projects restarted because  workers don’t know how long the stoppage will last, according to NATCA President Paul Rinaldi. This problem remains in situations like the temporary, three-week resolution currently keeping the government open; long-term programs can’t be restarted.

“Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t,” Rinaldi said in a recent talk. “Because you have the 15th right in front of you. You’d already have to be preparing to tear it down.”

At the same talk, Rinaldi said that “there is a possibility that the agency won’t be able to meet their 2020 mandate of ADS-B.”

In front of Congress, Calio echoed the concern over the coming mandate.

“We’re working on that with the FAA, but these shutdowns create a slowdown because nobody could work on it for 35 days, and if there’s another shutdown that will further delay it,” he said. “We’re working toward it and our expectation is to try to meet it,  so — we’ll see.”

Perhaps the program to suffer most at the hands of the shutdown is Data Comm. Not only have equipment updates been delayed, but training as well. After partially training controllers for the transition — and spending $8 million, according to Larsen — the FAA’s training and certification efforts were shuttered, which not only delayed the completion, but will necessitate starting over, according to Rinaldi. Because Data Comm requires training the pilot-to-controller communication protocols every day until it’s like second nature, stopping for so long undoes the previous work, he said.

Another effort stalled by the shutdown was the implementation of requirements put in place by the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2018, which itself kept the agency from going unfunded at the last minute five months ago.

AFA-CWA’s Nelson mentioned safety concerns including evacuation standards and secondary cockpit requirements for aircraft as well as an increase in mandated rest time for flight attendants to combat fatigue as examples of provisions of the reauthorization bill.

“The bill addresses these issues, too, along with sexual assault prevention, reporting and response, among hundreds of other safety initiatives,” Nelson said. “Again, none of this has been implemented and the shutdown made it impossible to move forward with accountability.”

The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Bill also tasked the FAA with figuring out how to integrate drones, urban air mobility vehicles and commercial spaceflight into the National Airspace System. That hasn’t been happening as much as it should, according to GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce. Those industries have been continuing to progress quickly while the FAA is shut down. Further, he said, the U.S. is at risk of falling behind Europe and China in on-demand mobility, where “a lot of dramatic work” is being done.

The other big issue facing aviation is staffing. In almost every position, staffing is a concern, and with the expected growth, industry insiders are worried about fielding enough pilots, controllers, safety inspectors and maintenance technicians to preserve safety without compromising efficiency or volume.

The shutdown will hurt those efforts, the witnesses said.

“The problem is not being essential,” said PASS National President Mike Perrone. “Everybody does their job and keeps the system up and running. To be told you’re not essential, the morale was — ‘why should we come back?’ They could absolutely [find private sector jobs].”

Rinaldi said that the country is at a 30-year low in fully certified controllers and one-fifth of the current controller workforce is at retirement age.

“If 20 percent retire tomorrow because we’re looking at another shutdown, we cannot run the volume of traffic we are today,” he said.

Further, the FAA’s controller training facility was closed during the shutdown, which Rinaldi said both delays certification and dissuades the best candidates from pursuing the career. While the FAA’s controller school is re-opened, he said the limited class size will prevent it from making up lost ground on training controllers.

“They’re certainly going to try, but I believe they will miss their target for this year,” he said.

Nelson also mentioned the need to talk at some point about minimum staffing for flight attendants, who are currently worked beyond what will be allowed if the FAA Reauthorization Bill regulations are implemented.

All those testifying before Congress said that safety was the top priority. While they said their members would never let a plane take off if they did not believe it to be safe, the shutdown had entered additional risk and uncertainty into the system, which is by its nature less safe.

Nelson also mentioned her union’s call for a general strike, which hasn’t been seen in the U.S. in decades, saying that the option needs to be discussed as a potential response to what she called an “unprecedented” situation. She also said that if flight attendants think a flight is unsafe due to any factors, they will refuse to board it until that changes.

“There is bipartisan support to keep the government open with stable, long-term funding; Americans overwhelmingly support this,” she said. “If Washington will not put an end to this crisis, we will take action to save lives and protect U.S. aviation.”

Nelson was the only one in the hearing who approached calling for a strike, but all those in front of Congress strongly urged lawmakers to pass H.R. 1108, warning of consequences if they don’t.

“Every day our government is shut down, our country is gambling with aviation safety,” said Perrone. “We can’t subject our public to unnecessary risk due to political disagreements.”

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