FAA to Recall Thousands of Furloughed Inspectors to Break Logjams

(Bloomberg) -- Aviation regulators plan to recall thousands of inspectors furloughed by the partial government shutdown so they can resume performing air-safety checks and routine activities including clearing planes for airlines to add to their fleets.

The Department of Transportation issued a revised shutdown plan Monday saying it will bring more than 3,100 aviation-safety specialists back onto the job as of Jan. 18, up from 216 at the start of the shutdown that began Dec. 22.

“We are recalling inspectors and engineers to perform duties to ensure continuous operational safety of the entire national airspace,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. “We proactively conduct risk assessment, and we have determined that after three weeks it is appropriate to recall inspectors and engineers.”

Michael Gonzales, a regional vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, said most inspectors have been willing to return to work because they consider their work critical to ensuring safety, but they have also been angry about how the shutdown has prevented them from being paid, Gonzales said.

About 1,500 inspectors were to be recalled as of Tuesday, Gonzales said in an email. These recalled employees won’t be paid, he said. Congress after previous shutdowns has typically voted to pay federal employees who worked without pay during shutdowns as well as those who were furloughed.

“The FAA Flight Standards Service has developed an aggressive plan to bring key components of our safety inspector work online, with an initial recall of all principle safety inspectors through next week,” he said.

About 3,000 FAA safety inspectors were among the hundreds of thousands of federal employees furloughed in a political stalemate between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over whether to fund a wall on the Mexico border.

The FAA has repeatedly said that it wouldn’t allow safety to be compromised in the nation’s aviation system. Additional safety inspectors on the job may allow the FAA to begin a backlog of approvals that have prevented airlines and other commercial carriers from adding aircraft to their fleets and approving new routes.

While details weren’t available on what the inspectors will prioritize and how long it will take them to get back on the job, the shutdown’s impact on the aviation industry has been expanding and last week prompted dire warnings from trade groups and unions. Airport security screening has also been disrupted, prompting longer lines at some airports as unpaid Transportation Security Administration officers call in sick at higher than normal rates.

The FAA furloughs have prevented Delta Air Lines Inc. from putting at least seven aircraft into service as they await FAA approvals. While there’s no immediate effect on the carrier’s operation, “it certainly could have an impact downstream on us,” Delta said.

The Jan. 31 inaugural flights of Delta’s new Airbus SE A220 planes are “likely to be pushed back” due to certification delays. “We’re not expecting this to be an extended delay,” Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian said on a conference call Tuesday.

American Airlines Group Inc. also has been blocked from adding two newly purchased planes to its operations. Southwest Airlines Co. said on Monday it was delaying a start to its new service to Hawaii because it hadn’t been able to obtain the complex FAA approvals necessary to fly long distances over water.

Southwest said it could be several days before it knows if FAA workers needed to resume work on its certification are among those recalled.

The FAA also plans to recall 600 staff from its Air Traffic Organization, according to the DOT plan. More than 10,000 air-traffic controllers have been working throughout the shutdown without pay, but many employees in a support role were furloughed.

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