Last week, on the first day of the government shutdown, I flew a trip in the IFR system and everything was totally normal. So far controllers and FSS are still on the job and the system is working, but other vital general aviation activities are far from normal.
Airplane registrations have been suspended so buying and selling existing airplanes, and delivery of new airplanes, is grinding to a halt. Though it is still legal to transfer ownership of an airplane, it has become practically speaking impossible.
Without the FAA aircraft registration staff working ownership transfer paperwork is on hold. Title searches for the sale of an airplane can’t be conducted so lenders will balk. Manufacturers are finding it impossible to get the necessary documents to deliver a newly built airplane and register its N-number.
Perhaps the most widespread concern for airplane owners is that about 10,000 airplane registrations expire each month. Even if all other paperwork is in order it will become illegal to fly an airplane once the registration expires. Without FAA employees on the job there is nobody to renew registrations and the backlog is piling up.
The airman medical certification branch of the FAA is operating at some level, but not fully. Routine medical exams and certificates can make it through, but anything requiring special issuance or handling by the FAA is essentially on hold until the government shutdown is reversed.
For some odd reason medical certification of air traffic controllers is not happening. Controllers are required to have a medical certificate that is approximately the same as a second class medical for pilots. Without the medical controllers can’t work.
People hoping to earn new certificates or ratings are also in limbo because the testing centers for the knowledge exam—what we used to call the written test—have suspended activity. You can’t take the online exams, and it may not be possible to get results from an exam you already took. You may be all ready for a checkride, and a designated examiner may be able to administer the check, but without the written test and results you can’t move forward.
Even though the ATC system is working OK now, that won’t last because most controller training is on hold. Controller training is crucial because even experienced controllers can’t move to a new position without specific training on that position. Retirements, sick leave and all of the normal attrition will soon cut into qualified controller staffing.
The U.S. may also be in violation of international treaties that govern aviation. Our country has signed treaties agreeing to observe many specific aircraft certification procedures and safety inspections that don’t appear to be happening during the shutdown. Our government signed those treaties so that we can all benefit from uniform standards and raise the level of safety across the globe.
The fourth quarter of every year is the busiest for new airplane deliveries and the government shutdown has stopped most of those deliveries. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association estimates delays in new airplane deliveries—and payments–amount to more than $1 billion so far. Even people who build their own airplanes can’t get them registered until the government opens up and the FAA people go back to work.
Many people and businesses are being harmed by the federal government shutdown but aviation is pretty far up the list because it is regulated at the federal level, not state or local level. The government shutdown removed the people who make it possible for us to follow the rules, but the shutdown didn’t eliminate any of the requirements. In aviation, we’re collateral damage to a fight that is not ours.