A Future with More Government Shutdowns?

Government Shutdown FAAAs of this writing, the 2013 government shutdown, the first in 17 years, has been in effect for a week with no signs of ending. If it only continues for another week or two and doesn’t reoccur in the near future, the many people and organizations affected by it will give a collective sigh of relief and it will soon be forgotten. But what if government shutdowns become the new normal?

It wasn’t that long ago that filibusters in the Senate were rare, but since 2009 they’ve become routine, requiring 60 votes whereas in the past a simple majority vote was sufficient.  If government shutdowns become routine, we may be in uncharted territory.

From the important to the mundane, here’s what’s not happening at the FAA during the government shutdown:

  • The Aircraft Registry Branch is closed, so new aircraft sales have halted since the planes can’t be registered. A GAMA survey indicates that 12 deliveries were missed in the first two days and a total of 135 deliveries totaling $1.38 billion if the shutdown lasts a couple of weeks. Interestingly, the Aircraft Registry Branch was deemed essential and left open during the shutdowns in the 1990s. Why not this time?
  • The Flight Standards Service is down from 5,000 people to fewer than 200 essential people, mostly managers. So the inspectors who provide safety oversight of maintenance and operations are mostly sidelined. Expect virtually no ramp checks, ferry permits, CFI renewals, or approval of applications, such as a new Part 135 certificate for a new charter operator. “Limited” certification work, such as on new aircraft under development, will continue according to the DOT.
  • Written exams for knowledge tests have halted, an inconvenience for anyone who put off taking their written exam until just before a now delayed checkride.
  • Major new initiatives are delayed. Remember Part 23 reform that according to AOPA will “overhaul small-aircraft certification rules to double safety and cut costs in half.” Not happening right now. Development and testing of NextGen technologies is also halted. And if you’ve taken a written exam and wondered why you saw lots of questions about ADF receivers, but few on GPS, be aware that the current overhaul of knowledge tests has stopped.

Some things that are essential to protect life and property continue to be in place. That includes air traffic control facilities, the FSS services provided by Lockheed Martin and the web site (which is actually part of NOAA, not the FAA). And DOT reports that 2,490 employees from the Office of Aviation Safety will be incrementally recalled over a two-week period. FAA practical tests (checkrides)  continue for now, except for those that require a ride with an FAA inspector, such as CFI checkrides in some FSDOs.

The 2013 FAA budget involved reductions of $486 million and the Fiscal Year 2014 target includes a reduction of $697 million. A future FAA with a shrinking budget is likely to take longer to implement new rules, to reduce the services it currently provides, and to outsource more of its functions. I expect it to also attempt to charge for previously free services (e.g. the $447,000 bill for ATC service at AirVenture).

So what are the near-term implications for General Aviation? For starters, people working in GA will need to start planning further ahead to minimize the impact of future government shutdowns. Some things will be easy, like encouraging flight students to take their written exams when they first start flight training. Others, like getting a new Part 135 charter certificate approved when the FAA is open will be difficult because of backlogs.

Looking further down the road, GA should be involved in the dialog on how to restructure a changing FAA. If you have a good idea on how they can cut waste and improve efficiency, send it to the Administrator. Do you have an idea on how they could outsource a service, like the Flight Service Stations (FSS) that were outsourced through Lockheed Martin? Send them a note or a proposal.

The worst possible outcome would be if other, better-funded agencies step in to help the FAA with their mission. I can only imagine how awful GA flying would become if, for example, the TSA took primary responsibility for ramp checks. If government shutdowns ever become the new normal, many things will change. And it will be up to all of us to make sure that GA as we know it doesn’t get swept under the carpet in the process.


  1. An aviation policy professional

    October 7, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    The utility of this particular post in pointing out the impacts of a government “shutdown” on general aviation can’t be understated. The highlights you’ve pointed out are great, and I couldn’t agree more: certainly the implications will be more far reaching if the current lack of budget authority continues.

    But please, refrain from writing about the intricacies of policy in this blog. First, you note that the use of the filibuster has been on the rise since 2009. That is incorrect. What has been trending upward is the invocation of cloture in the U.S. Senate. First, it is important to note that cloture is a vote to limit, not end debate, and that it can and sometimes is invoked even when the threat of a filibuster (sometimes referred to as a “hold’) isn’t present. What’s maybe more important, however, is that by erroneously implying that a filibuster has anything to with the current “shutdown,” you’re faulting the Senate de facto, without considering the fact that we have a bi-cameral legislature…remember? A Senate filibuster isn’t even 1/2 of this equation.

    Your point isn’t too far off the mark: by any measure, gridlock has grown in the past three Congresses. As both a pilot and an aviation policy professional, I can understand your attempt to get on the same level as your readers who maybe aren’t so concerned with arcane legislative procedure. But you can’t tie the potential of future shutdowns to a single step in the legislative process.

    • Max Trescott

      October 8, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Thank you for pointing out that it’s the use of cloture that’s been on the rise, not the filibuster. What I think I should have said was that any tool found to be useful (like cloture) gets used more. If government shutdowns are found to be a useful tool in some way, we may see more of them in the future and that would be bad for the GA.

  2. It is regrettable that the government is so profligate, and posts like this one do underscore the effects of running out of money, but parochial approaches to spending–do not cut my program, cut somewhere else–leads, inevitably, to the sort of irresponsibility resulting in a shutdown. How are we supposed to support the burden of the debt? Neither the FAA nor any other government program ought to be spared the effects of today’s debt crisis because it may be the only means of confronting the need to get things under control. I am not involved in budget decisions, but it seems as though some in the government, starting from the very top, think spending money we do not have is all right. I could not run my businesses the way the government runs itself, so I want the government to face reality. Another band-aid exacerbates the problem. Giving the FAA money to run makes sense if you are looking through a wax paper tube, and it may make sense with a broader field of vision, but the fix certainly requires a broader perspective. The FAA, itself, is a sieve for money in many cases, airport improvement grants being an example, so I am not too sympathetic to the sky-is-falling dialogue.

  3. Daryl makes a good point about the spending of our money, and don’t we all wish the government would get a reality check. I think pigs will fly first.
    The only way we could possibly have a chance of getting back to some reality, is to downsize this behemoth that rules us. How many of the furloughed workers are really necessary to run the FAA? I hear the EPA really only requires 6.5% of the current staffing. Sorry for anyone that is layed off. It’s not their fault.
    HOWEVER, everyone has their own rice bowl and no one wants any rice taken from theirs, just the other guy.
    Unfortunately, I’am cynical when it comes to the solution. We will have to tank the thing for enough to wake up and get a true reality check. That will be quite painful I fear.


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