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Grounded: How the shutdown disproportionately affects Alaska aviation

Colleen Mondor
Loren Holmes photo

Most media coverage surrounding the government shutdown’s impact on aviation has focused on air traffic control and what if any further suffering airline passengers might expect at the nation’s airports. But air traffic controllers are considered essential government employees, which conceals the real consequences for the aviation industry, particularly in Alaska.

With more than 15,000 full-time employees of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) furloughed, (80 of them in Alaska where only 3 are now working), the shutdown is seriously impacting the nation’s most aviation-dependent state. All of the operations and maintenance inspectors – FAA employees individually assigned to every single commuter and air taxi operator in the U.S. – are at home. FAA testing centers and aircraft registration offices are closed for business.

Many of the less visible duties the FAA fulfills everyday are unknown to the flying public but nevertheless critical to flight safety, not to mention the air taxis, charters and commuter airlines which form the backbone of Alaska’s multibillion dollar aviation industry.

Era Alaska, one of Alaska’s biggest regional air carriers, was in the midst of replacing an aircraft scheduled to leave this month when the shutdown occurred.

“The new aircraft will have to be certified by the FAA prior to putting it on the flight line,” Steve Smith, Era’s director of sales and marketing, said Wednesday. “This could potentially impact our schedule and the number of flights we can operate.”

Other difficulties could arise for the airline, which services Kenai, Homer, Kodiak, Valdez, Cordova, Bethel, Fairbanks, Aniak, Galena and several other Alaska communities, if the furloughs stretch into November, a distinct possibility according to some in the Alaska congressional delegation.

Warbelow's Air Ventures is holding some minor paperwork now for required signatures, but Director of Operations Darren Young posed a more significant question concerning the Office of Aircraft Registry. In 2010 the FAA embarked on a huge program to re-register the more than 350,000 civil aircraft in the U.S. in order to complete a more accurate database of the nation’s air fleet.

Warbelow’s operates aircraft that have not yet received their new registrations.

“Those aircraft will be grounded if this drags into next month,” Young said. It’s a situation that would likely not be uncommon across the state. 

Then there are the hundreds of Alaskans in training for flight and maintenance careers in the aviation industry. Without the FAA, written exams can not be administered. And while that’s not posing an immediate problem it could affect the bottom line for students in the not-too-distant future.

Prior to taking any practical exam, the “knowledge tests” in written form must be submitted and passed. If the shutdown ends up being prolonged, FAA backlogs could delay accreditation and workforce eligibility for students at the Bethel Yuut Yaqungviat flight school as well as at the University of Alaska aviation programs in Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Adam White with the Alaska Airmen’s Association is acutely aware of the bigger picture and how long-term projects involving government employees will be delayed in Alaska. The AAA, along with other statewide groups and agencies like the Alaska Air Carriers Association, have been working with federal regulators at the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on proposed changes to radio frequencies for the heavily trafficked skies over the Mat-Su Borough. A critical meeting to address this and other safety issues, years in the making, was canceled this week due to the shutdown.

“The longer the shutdown continues the longer it will take to get back to business as usual,” Smith said. “One major concern we have is that certain project timelines might be slipping which could put construction projects and safety improvements years behind schedule,” projects that already are hamstrung by Alaska’s short construction season.

Every FAA-required document a pilot, mechanic or operator uses can only be altered or amended with the agency’s approval. This includes all load manifests, manuals and the company’s Operations Specifications. Changes to instrument procedures, repairs to navigational aids and processing of airworthiness directives are all on hold.

Even passenger briefing cards are subject to FAA approval and cannot be updated without the agency’s OK. The relationship between those who fly and work in aviation, and those who oversee and enforce national aviation safety standards, may at times be strained. Yet it’s critical to the Alaska economy and, if the shutdown endures, its importance to the U.S. economy will soon be felt by the broader public.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com