That headline appeared in the online version of the New York Times in mid-October, just a few days after the U.S. Congress reached a last-minute agreement that avoided a debt default and reopened the partially shuttered U.S. government. The 16-day government shutdown closed federal agencies, parks and museums and furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers — all because the two major political parties in the United States can’t work together. The two sides now have until the end of this year to work out a longer-term solution or face the prospect of another shutdown early in 2014.
What does this have to do with safety? Consider this: After a Spirit Airlines Airbus A319 suffered an engine failure — originally reported to be an uncontained failure — on Oct. 15, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had to recall investigators from furlough to look into the matter, according to published reports. While NTSB quickly determined that the engine failure had been contained, the fact remains that the investigators had been furloughed with so many others. Investigations that had begun before the shutdown were slowed or stopped for the two weeks the government was idling, which means that potentially crucial findings also could be delayed.
A few days before the Spirit event, Flight Safety Foundation was one of nearly 50 signatories on a letter sent to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging the Department of Transportation to use its discretionary power to reopen the U.S. aircraft registry. The letter, written by aviation attorney Kenneth P. Quinn, who serves on the Foundation’s Board of Governors and is its general counsel and secretary, said in part, “operations of the U.S. Registry are vital to protection of human life and property, safety and security.”
Aviation safety is a complex, often highly integrated endeavor that requires constant attention. Safety and risk management do not take holidays. You can’t furlough thousands of inspectors, engineers, pilots, technicians and others in numerous safety-related jobs throughout multiple agencies and not expect an increase in risk, and that doesn’t take into account the human factors issues that come with employment instability and the resulting stress.
Unfortunately, budget showdowns are increasingly common here in the United States. Congress and the Obama administration have another chance to restore some sanity to the situation. Here’s hoping that they don’t squander that opportunity. As former NTSB Member John Goglia wrote in a recent Forbes article, “I hope that both the FAA [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration] and NTSB can get back to focusing on this [the Spirit engine failure] and other significant safety issues.”