A commemoration ceremony for the victims at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 plane crash near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on March 14. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
Columnist

The Federal Aviation Administration has a proud history of keeping the friendly skies safe, a reputation now sullied by its slow drag after the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

The delay in grounding Boeing 737 Max 8 and Max 9 models undermines faith in an agency that in this case is not a leader in air safety but a distant follower, lagging well behind the international community.

Instead of erring on the side of caution to protect lives, the FAA waited for more data before taking action. The agency drew criticism, unfair or not, for appearing to protect an American corporation. Two crashes of the plane in less than five months, killing a total of 346 people under similar circumstances was all the data most needed to conclude the aircraft should sit still for now.

This also draws attention to an agency that continues to feel the impact of President Trump’s 35-day partial government shutdown that started just before Christmas. The effects of that closure have consequences that are not quickly reversed and that exacerbate old problems.

I believe a layer of safety was compromised or missing because the FAA was not there” during the shutdown, Mike Perrone, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), said during an interview.

PASS members working in the FAA install, maintain and certify air traffic control equipment and inspect aviation companies. Perrone doesn’t know whether the labor lockout affected work on the Boeing planes specifically, but the shutdown generated a backlog that will take time to remedy.

When the employees returned,they had that pile of work to do, plus their day-to-day continuation of activities,” he said. “So I’m not sure where the 737 was in the pipeline as far as getting that work signed off or certificated. But any work that was in line just sat in the inspectors’ inboxes until they got back to work.”

His interview comments echo those he and others told a recent House hearing titled “Putting U.S. Aviation at Risk: The Impact of the Shutdown.”

Representatives from various parts of the industry agreed that “the government shutdown will have a lingering negative impact upon certification activities for the foreseeable future,” as Peter J. Bunce, president and chief executive of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, said. He cited flight testing of new aircraft, which “even under the best circumstances, we anticipate disruptions will continue for months.”

Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America, which represents large airlines, predicted that “the ramifications of the shutdown, compounded by previous shutdowns, will have dramatic and unforeseen repercussions in the long term,” including on safety training enhancement, voluntary safety reporting and the ability to complete airworthiness directives.

“The reality that no one wants to hear is that the [national airspace system] was less safe during the shutdown than before it began,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “The system began to experience decreased efficiency and capacity as a result of the shutdown and was on the verge of unraveling.”

But the problems didn’t end when the shutdown did. The airspace system “and the FAA did not revert to normalcy when the shutdown ended,” Rinaldi added. “It may take weeks, months, or even years for some aspects of the system to return to normal order.”

The FAA did not respond to a request for comment.

Like others, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) praised the American aviation system as the “largest, busiest, and safest system in the world.”

But “unfortunately,” he added, “the effects of the shutdown — the longest in U.S. history — will be felt for years to come.”

The shutdown contributed to existing conditions such as controller staffing levels that DeFazio said “are already at a 30-year low, due in part to the 2013 government shutdown, which lasted half the time of this most recent one.”

Perrone said the FAA is short on inspectors, who can earn more in private industry. Those who do seek federal employment can wait up to 14 months to be hired, he said by phone. During the shutdown, some inspectors quit because they were earning no money. Furthermore, “it put a dampening on the future of people coming into the agency.”

After the shutdown at one FAA training class in Oklahoma, according to Perrone, “half of them didn’t come back. They just said, ‘We’re done. We quit.’”

DeFazio and aviation subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said in a statement that they plan “a rigorous investigation into why the aircraft, which has critical safety systems that did not exist on prior models, was certified without requiring additional pilot training. … We plan to conduct rigorous oversight with every tool at our disposal to get to the bottom of the FAA’s decision-making process.”

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