Air Safety Still Lags After U.S. Shutdown, Controllers’ Union Says

(Bloomberg) -- The aviation system’s safety still hasn’t fully recovered from the 35-day U.S. government shutdown that halted progress on new technology and stopped reviews of incident reports, the air-traffic controllers’ union president told Congress.

U.S. aviation was “on the verge of unraveling” when the partial shutdown ended Jan. 25. Flights were delayed into New York’s LaGuardia Airport as controllers didn’t report to work due to illness and fatigue, said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

The shutdown cut off funding to more than a dozen departments and agencies and was the result of a political dispute between President Donald Trump and lawmakers over funding for a wall on the Mexico border. To prevent another shutdown, lawmakers must pass a compromise measure to renew long-term funding by Friday.

Wednesday’s hearing before the House aviation subcommittee delved into the impact of the shutdown on air safety in the U.S.

Installation of a new radar system designed to warn controllers when aircraft aren’t lined up to land on the proper runway was one of the programs that was temporarily halted, Rinaldi told the House aviation subcommittee on Wednesday.

The new system is working at some airports, but its installation at others was halted when the Federal Aviation Administration furloughed more than one-third of its workers as part of a partial government shutdown that lasted 35 days.

The importance of the radar was highlighted in recent days when the system alerted controllers in Philadelphia that a plane was headed for a taxiway instead of the runway, he said. A controller ordered the plane to halt its landing and it flew about 600 feet over two planes on the ground, Rinaldi said.

Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, said safety during the shutdown wasn’t compromised. However, some of the many layers of protection were temporarily jeopardized and it forced the FAA to delay some flights as a way to ensure safety, Calio said.

While no airline crew or aviation inspector knowingly allowed a plane to take off in an unsafe situation, the shutdown reduced oversight and could have led to inadvertent errors, said Mike Perrone, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists. Perrone’s union represents FAA safety inspectors and technicians who maintain air traffic equipment.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Perrone said.

In addition to potential safety issues, the shutdown slowed or halted scores of normally routine actions in the aviation industry, from hiring new airline pilots to approving new aircraft designs, said Calio and Pete Bunce, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association trade group.

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