FAA Recalls 600 Airport Inspectors But Most Still Out; Safety Questioned

Bradley International Airport furloughed 31 safety inspectors due to the government shutdown, and they still have no returned to work. Fox CT's Jan Carabeo has more.

The Federal Aviation Administration called back 600 aircraft, maintenance and compliance inspectors Tuesday, leaving at least 2,200 out of work in a situation the inspectors' union calls a needless risk.

The agency, which furloughed 15,500 people, or one-third of its staff, also recalled 200 inspectors assigned to aviation factories, as deliveries were starting to back up.

But as the partial government shutdown lurches into its second week, why leave any inspectors out on furlough, when the federal rules are clear that they are essential workers? It's a scary thought: The men and women who inspect commercial airplanes and monitor safety records, training and pilot readiness for the FAA are on the sidelines as airlines continue with their full schedules unabated.

The furloughs that started Oct. 1 included 31 inspectors stationed at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, out of 3,000 across the nation, plus 1,000 more support people. It's unclear how many of the Bradley inspectors were called back Tuesday.

Inspectors and other members of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (New England chapter NG3) will raise awareness of the safety issues at an informational picket at 5:15 p.m. today at the Bradley terminal, backed by the AFL-CIO and U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District. Nearly 90 members of the bargaining unit who live and/or work in Connecticut are furloughed, including inspectors and others, said Mark Dunlap, president of the chapter — a telecommunications specialist who is furloughed himself.

It's hard not to see this as a case of the FAA abandoning caution by interpreting the shutdown rules with too much caution. The folks who control air traffic and maintain ground-based aviation radar, navigation and communication systems are on the job, so apparently we're not suicidal — just stupid. It's comforting to know we can track the exact location of a decades-old airliner that flies around with a hairline crack on its left aileron for as long as it takes Congress to vote on a budget.

Sure, the airlines have their own inspectors, and third-party inspectors remain on the job. But the FAA staff forms the core and oversees the whole complex business of ensuring that your flight to Chicago is good to go.

"Our people are just beside themselves," said Kori Blalock Keller, spokeswoman for the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, which represents the furloughed inspectors. "The longer the inspectors are off the job the more the risk increases."

How risky is all this? The FAA says it's safe, adding that it will recall more people as necessary. "The FAA is constantly evaluating safety risk in the system," the agency said in a written release.

Airlines for America, the industry association, said, "We are still evaluating the impacts but we are confident safety will not be compromised."

The Connecticut Airport Authority, which operates Bradley, also said flights are safe — but was never even informed by the FAA that the inspectors are off the job and didn't know until I told them Monday.

To really understand the risk, and the idiocy of keeping aircraft inspectors out while allowing FAA airport planners to remain on the job, we need to look at the inspection system through the eyes of furloughed inspectors. No, a loose bolt isn't going to send a wing hurtling off a plane in midair and no, the inspectors aren't mongering fear. But as operations inspector Bob Berlyn explains it, the countless checks are designed to root out small problems that can add up to big ones.

"The aviation system in this country is the envy of the world and we are that way because of the regulations we have and the surveillance we have," said Berlyn, who's based in the Boston area. "Has it deteriorated to the point where I would say you should be afraid to fly? No, it hasn't. ... But it's really hard to quantify that. … How many accidents have we prevented? I don't know; we've prevented all the accidents that you haven't seen."

One inspector at Bradley made the point that pilots, especially at smaller, general aviation firms, could miss required check-rides during the shutdown.

"There's no oversight for any of the pilots that are flying. We have no idea what is going on," said the inspector, who declined to be named for fear of retribution by the FAA. "We're just not there to ensure the safety of the public."

The FAA's own written plan, oddly, seems to say the inspectors are exempt from furloughs. The list of idled work includes "security inspections" but nothing about the aircraft on the tarmac or the pilots in the cockpit. And the list of uninterrupted work includes "flight standards field inspections" and "airport inspections."

Well, that's not what's happening in the real world.

Still on the job are 300 FAA supervisors "manning the phones," said Blalock Keller, the union spokeswoman, and they have the power to immediately recall an inspector — something that had not happened in this shutdown as of midday Monday.

Put another way, the farmer has the power to call the barn repair man anytime the horse gets out.

The point is, we need inspectors every day if we need them at all — because it's a safety issue, not a matter of convenience or justice or profit or jobs.

In the last government shutdown 17 years ago, all of the aviation inspectors were on the job except those with less than a year of experience, Blalock Keller said. This time around, "We thought it was a mistake," she said. "We waited, and we got verbal confirmation from the FAA that it was indeed not a mistake."

By the standards of anyone who's ever stood at the end of a runway and watched the miraculous machinery of flight, it's not only a mistake but a pointless blunder.

Follow The Haar Report at http://www.courant.com/haar.

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