Shutdown made aviation less safe: NATCA chief

The recent 35-day government shutdown harmed aviation safety because it eroded the layers of critical elements necessary to support and maintain the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS), according to controllers’ union chief who testified before the US House of Representatives.

NATCA president Paul Rinaldi told the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I), Subcommittee on Aviation that: “Even though the NAS is safer now than it was during the shutdown, it is less safe today than it was before the shutdown began.”

Rinaldi offered examples about how the NAS is less safe because of the shutdown. One such example was when he explained that the FAA now has delayed for 90 days the implementation of new technological enhancements that would help prevent wrong surface landings at eight additional major airports.

Each year, there are more than 200 events across the NAS in which an aircraft lands, or attempts to land, on the wrong runway, on a taxiway, or at the wrong airport entirely. Just last week, at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), one of six airports where this new technology is already operational, a flight was cleared to land on Runway 35, but aligned itself on Taxiway E, parallel to the intended runway.

Rinaldi described how this system alerted the local controller who immediately instructed the pilot to execute a go-around. The pilot overflew two commercial airplanes on the taxiway by 600 and 700 feet respectively on the go-around.

Prior to the shutdown, the FAA had scheduled implementation of this new technology by March 31, 2019, at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), Honolulu Control Facility (HCF), McCarran International Airport (LAS), Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW), Memphis International Airport (MEM), Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), and Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). That implementation has now been delayed until June 30, 2019.

In his testimony, Rinaldi further described how the shutdown harmed the thousands of aviation safety professionals that he represents and exacerbated the air traffic controller staffing crisis. “Given the unprecedented nature and length of the shutdown, there is no question that it has damaged and will continue to harm the system, which supports 12 million aviation-related jobs and contributes over $1.5 trillion annually to the US economy. Every time the government is shut down or brought to the brink of a shutdown due to political disagreements that have nothing to do with aviation, it has real consequences for real people. Unfortunately, shutdowns and threats of shutdowns have become a common occurrence.”

Rinaldi also thanked House T&I Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen for introducing the Aviation Funding Stability Act of 2019 (H.R. 1108). “It would provide a stable, predictable funding stream for the NAS by preventing government shutdowns from affecting the FAA. NATCA strongly supports this legislation.”

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