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Air Safety Is Important. We Shouldn't Let Politics Put It at Risk

It's time to remove this vital function from the government budget.

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JFK Airport. Wang Ying Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

Employees of the American aviation industry warned this week that the government shutdown poses "unprecedented" risks for air travel in the United States. In a joint statement released Wednesday by unions representing air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants, employees said that "staffing in our air traffic control facilities is already at a 30-year low and controllers are only able to maintain the system's efficiency and capacity by working overtime, including 10-hour days and 6-day workweeks at many of our nation's busiest facilities." Transportation Security Agency (TSA) employees are also working overtime without pay, and many have called in sick during the shutdown so that they can work other jobs.

Aviation unions are right to call attention to possibly increased risks to aviation safety (air traffic control) and security (checkpoint screening) due to controllers and screeners going for long periods without pay.

This is not because of any malfeasance on the part of these employees. Instead, it is a predictable consequence of increasing fatigue brought about by working excessive overtime and the stress of not getting paid. Overtime is occurring as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Transportation Security Administration, respectively, attempt to cope with staffers calling in sick, or—in the case of some controllers—deciding to retire, rather than continuing on without paychecks or enough fellow workers.

It is unconscionable that these vital safety and security functions are at risk from the growing trend of federal government shutdowns. In the case of air traffic control, about 60 other countries have de-politicized air traffic control, removing this vital function from the government budget by setting it up as a self-supporting corporate entity—generally either a government corporation or a nonprofit, private corporation. Fees and charges paid by aircraft operators provide a reliable revenue stream; so reliable that larger air traffic control companies like those of Canada and the U.K. issue investment-grade revenue bonds to pay for modernizing their technology and facilities—something the FAA can only dream about.

Regarding airport security, Canada and most countries in Europe couple national performance standards and regulation with screening by government-vetted security companies. While those companies are paid either by the airports they serve or by the national government (as in Canada), the security companies have a strong reputational interest in keeping their service operating at 100 percent, even if government is late making payments to them. The two dozen U.S. airports, such as San Francisco International, that are allowed to use screening companies have been operating normally during the federal shutdown, with the screeners receiving normal paychecks from the companies.

In other words, we know how to insulate vital aviation safety and security functions from the vagaries of the federal budget. When is Congress going to get serious about fixing this very serious problem?