A lack of government appropriations has caused the National Transportation Safety Board to suspend around 1,500 active incident investigations and delay investigations into 13 accidents, covering both transportation and non-transportation events.
It's not possible to investigate these incidents because the government shutdown forced the agency to furlough 383 of its 405 employees, according to NTSB’s acting chairman, Deborah A.P. Hersman. The agency has also postponed investigation hearings into the Asiana 777 crash this summer at the San Francisco International Airport and two Metro-North rail accidents, hearings that were to begin in the next two months.
While NTSB will re-institute furloughed workers at the first sign of a major accident, she said, this would only be a bare-bones team, and the agency would still not be able to provide adequate support after the initial investigation.
“In the event of a major transportation accident that meets the criteria outlined in our contingency plan, we are prepared to launch an investigative team,” she said. “Our furloughed investigators are prepared to resume their roles as transportation safety investigators, if recalled. However, other important functions that do not meet the ‘immediate threat to life or property’ threshold, such as briefing the public on the status of the investigation or providing support to accident survivors or victims’ families will not resume under a shutdown.”
NTSB’s issues are only some of the nation’s transportation operations waylaid by the ongoing government shutdown. The Senate Commerce Committee Friday held a hearing on the impacts of the shutdown, gathering representatives from government transportation and non-transportation agencies to talk about the fallout of furloughing thousands of workers and temporarily shutting down programs.
Even as they started the hearing, senators from both sides of the aisle voiced concerns about the impact of the shutdown and put the blame on the other party. Referencing the state of our “fragile recovery,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said some of his colleagues aren’t heeding the warnings of economists, who have warned of a backslide into recession.
“They have been recklessly putting our economy at risk of a relapse,” he said.
The shutdown is also having an adverse affect on the manufacturing and technological progress in the airline industry. Marion Blakely, head of the Aerospace Industries Association, said while the immediate impact of the Federal Aviation Administration’s furloughs has been small because air traffic controllers are still working, the furloughed support staff at the FAA is an important part of the agency.
Aircraft manufacturers depend on government inspectors being in place to review and certify new equipment on a timely basis. The law requires FAA to certify all aircraft, equipment and training simulators before they can be put into service, she said. “Although the agency has recently begun calling back more of its certification staff, in the first week of the shutdown more than 90 percent of the Aircraft Certification Service was furloughed.”
She said this lack of certification staff is causing delays in new products and “exacerbating a backlog created by this spring’s deep sequester cuts.”
The FAA’s position on the international stage, pushing for aviation safety and regulations, is also being affected, she said. With so many employees furloughed, it’s difficult for the FAA to maintain its seat at the international table. Also, she said, the furloughs have meant the suspension of work on NextGen technologies.
Congress has recently encouraged the FAA to put a higher priority on near-term benefits and NextGen implementation. However, just as the FAA is making that change, with its brand-new NextGen leadership team, the wheels grind to a halt,” she said. “We simply cannot make the progress Congress envisioned in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act unless the FAA is provided stable and reliable funding.”
She finished by saying that the government shutdown, and all the recent funding issues, is working to delay needed infrastructure investment.
“As difficult as the shutdown is, we should not lose sight of the sequestration’s long-term harm to important government functions,” she said. “AIA is concerned that, as agencies are forced to choose between today’s operating budget and tomorrow’s capital investments, they will increasingly eliminate the investments.”