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Government Shutdown vs.Aviation

By Ed Downs

“How about making the February editorial about the current government shutdown’s effect on aviation,” said my boss at In Flight USA’sSupreme Galactic Headquarters.  “Sure,” said I, wondering how I would be able to write about the ridiculous and obscene behavior of politicians who bounce between foolishness and outright lies without simply exposing readers to a politically driven rant. Okay, how about I stress the subject of aviation and see if there are facts or statistics that might rate discussion. Indeed, a challenge, with the following words certainly falling into the category of an “OP/ED,” but perhaps offering some thoughts that might be worth considering. Of course, just as I began writing this opinion, a three-week hiatus was announced. We can only hope that the foolishness we have all been witnessing will be resolved, but this is still a subject worth thinking about, perhaps for future events.

First, let me explain that this writer is not a stranger to the eccentricities of working “inside the beltway” of Washington D.C. While certainly not an expert, early unfavorable encounters with the FAA (1958-timeframe) caused this writer to enter the world of aviation law early in my career, involving congressional intervention, and gaining the support of highly influential political figures and aviation “alphabet” groups. This exposure later led to involvement in large aircraft certification, creation of advanced FAA-approved training programs, and management of a major airline’s legal involvement with local and national government agencies. Perhaps most applicable to the recent government shutdown was the four years I spent in Washington DC serving with a major airline lobby organization on behalf of my airline employer. This involved a hands-on interface with both houses of Congress, the Executive branch of government, and aviation special interest groups. The most memorable adventure during this timeframe was my personal involvement in dealing with the ATC strike of Aug. 1981.  Allow me to share some observations that have come from this experience, most of which are certainly applicable to current events.

Those of us who come from professional careers, private industry, and/or employees of both large and small companies know that we are judged primarily on results. That is, how much profit do we produce, perhaps rated by satisfied customers, sales results, meeting production schedules, successful safety programs or other such activities, all measurable endeavors. In other words, our careers have a “measure of success” that can be counted or quantified. This is not so true inside the “Beltway” or most federal bureaucracies they create. Even the most well intended politicians quickly learn that influence and power are the measure of success, not measurable results. It is as if “newbies” coming in from private industry, full of good ideas on how to “change” the inadequacies of government, are quickly ushered into the appropriate congressional facility and have their heads stuck in a virtual toilet, while the “party bully” explains the facts of political life to them. It is power, influence, and favors that gets one the good committee assignments, party campaign funds (read that lots of money), and party support in the next elections.  

Reaching results promised to constituents is not very relevant. One learns quickly that the daily talking points must be followed carefully and that being excessively independent in one’s thinking will lead to a one-term experience. It is this type of “Beltway tradition” that has resulted in the current shut down. Cynical … no … realistic … yes … and important to remember when private industry seeks to negotiate with the “Empire of the Beltway.” To be sure, the government shutdown we have recently experienced is a power struggle, with federal employees and those dependent upon certain government services simply being used as cannon fodder. The same situation existed in the ATC events of 1981. It was the Executive Branch (DOT) opposing the power of an employee union, with ATC employees, the airlines, and traveling public simply being collateral damage. Interestingly enough, the airline industry offered viable solutions to the 1981 differences, but they did not address the “power and influence” part of the equation, therefore being ignored. Once again, the national aviation system and government employees simply became cannon fodder.

So, back to the subject, how does did the recent government shutdown affect aviation.  The short answer is very little, but where does that conclusion come from. First, the government was not“shut down.” Nearly 75 percent of the “government” was funded and working. Annual government budgets are no longer “annual” but granted in a hodgepodge manner through multiple legislative bills and temporary extensions. An extensive search of news reports, FAA statistics, web-based information, and articles published about the shutdown were of little help. The bottom line is that the general media thinks that airlines and airline airports are the only forms of aviation in this country. EVERYreport this writer reviewed about the shut down’s adverse effects on aviation led to an agenda-driven conclusion, aligned with either supporting or not supporting “the wall.” Boy, does this writer ever miss the reporting of Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and that hard-hitting newspaper, the Daily Planet… oh yeah … that is all fictional!  

Only one report pointed out that FAA air traffic controllers, TSA employees at airports, certain federal law enforcement functions, and other selected services were classified as “Essential Workers” with the requirement to go to work. While not being paid, their pay would come retroactively. Several articles pointed out long airline delays at busy East Coast airline airports but failed to note that these delays coincided with terrible weather. One publication used the “delays” and “vulnerability of ATC funding to political pressures” as a means of once again raising the specter of a “privatized ATC.” To be sure, some number of “essential workers” did object to working without pay and took earned vacation time or sick leave. The total effect is unknown. In other cases, personnel that support “essential workers” may have been on furlough, affecting “essential” productivity. This writer could not locate specifics. It is disheartening to note how much information being put out by the so-called media is simply political tripe and outright fabrications.  A very notable exception to the trend to politicized mis-information is AOPA, which despite being a “special interest group,” seems to find honesty and accuracy to be the best policy, dealing with facts, not agendas.  

How about GA, where do we stand? This writer could not find any statistics about the government shutdown’s effect on GA. www.FAAsafety.govdid issue an alert that temporary FAA certificates (all of them) were not being processed during the shutdown, and even with the hiatus, most temporaries will expire. A link was given ( to help those who might be affected by offering a 60-day extension.  

Aircraft registration issues and other certificate requirements might be a problem. Be sure to check whatever temporary certificate you might be dealing with. While the shutdown may be on recess, the effects will linger. Administrative functions of the FAA have suffered in previous reductions of government services. According to the general media, any reduction of ATC services will immediately result in airplanes catastrophically crashing into each other like blind mice in a maze. Media stresses that aircraft separation is totally dependent upon ATC services. Hogwash!  ATC performance is not judged by separation standards alone but by maximizing the safe use of the national airspace system (most airplanes in the least space) and achieving maximum runway utilization rates. In other words, cram and jam! This is the airline and IFR world.  

What about us VFR guys? According to FAA stats, there are almost 20,000 airports in the lower 48 States, of which nearly 5,200 are considered “public use.” A public use airport is defined as “An airport that can be used by the general public without the need for approval from the owner or operator.” There are also airports classified as “privately owned/public use” airports, which may add to the 5,200 number. 785 of the 5,200 public airports have specific ATC needs (626 Class D, 122 Class C, and 37 Class B), meaning that about 85 percent of public use airports have no ATC requirement. And remember, most of the Class D towers close at night.  

This writer has flown to the four corners of this country in old or ill-equipped planes on many occasions, and never missed ATC, required a transponder or, in some cases, even had a transceiver or nav system. To be sure, I used Flight Service, but the web has even limited that use, as mass disseminated information is now readily available through private sources. Of course, remember that Flight Service is the official outlet for NOTAMS and TFR’s, but private sources do a good job. Yes, it is very possible that a shutdown could cripple IFR services, a disaster for the airlines and corporate flying, but of limited interest to the typical GA pilot. The beauty of the U.S. national airspace system is that title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations (governs the Department of Transportation) requires that DOT “guarantee the right to navigable airspace.” This is significantly different from most other countries, which claim absolute ownership of their airspace, making it available only upon specific approval. Claims that the U.S. should have airspace more like New Zealand drive this writer crazy!

GA in the U.S. can simply “kick the tires and light the fires” when it comes to traveling by private, or even business, aircraft. We do just that everyday and do not run into each other like those blind mice in a maze. We use preventive maintenance policies allowed by the FAA to keep our machines safe, and most of us stay healthy or remain on the ground when not up to snuff. We, not the government, are the PIC, perfectly able to get from one place to another without ATC participation.  

Does the Government shutdown really have any effect on typical VFR flights? Not if you are doing it right. The important question may be, are your skills up to the responsibilities of being a PIC, acting as the commander of your flight in all respects.  Many have become very dependent upon ATC services and automation. Are you one of them? A skilled PIC is most interested in results, not a feeling of power or prestige, heightened using extraordinary technology. Yes, those who are dependent upon ATC service can feel the pinch. Those who are well trained, proficient, prepared, and patient with the weather can do just fine. Drop us a line if you have experienced specific issues caused by the shutdown. There is a lot we can all learn from this foolishness if we just keep digging through the political poop under the Christmas tree and find that pony, which must be there.

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