On the surface, air travel appears very much the same as it did before the government shutdown. But there have been big changes behind the scenes. Even when there isn't a government shutdown in effect, most people involved in putting planes in the air are invisible to travelers.
Mark Dunlap, New England chapter president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, said, "We always struggle talking to the public about what our people do." Job titles like Airway Transportation System Specialist don't make it easy.
So he used an analogy. Let's say you go see a movie. There are going to be some stars, and you might even know who the director is. Those would be the pilots and air traffic controller, flight crews and ticket agents, the supporting cast. Dunlap said, "At the end of the movie, you see the credits, and they go on for like ten minutes."
That's where you'd find the 11,000 members of his union, some of whom demonstrated in front of Bradley Airport yesterday, and tens of thousands more employees of the Federal Aviation Administration. Flights are still on schedule nine days into the shutdown, because two-thirds of those employees, from radar operators to traffic controllers, have been deemed essential, and are required to work through the shutdown without pay.
The rest, declared nonessential, have been furloughed. Dunlap was shocked when he learned that all of the nearly 3000 Aviation Safety Inspectors would be among them. "Should people be concerned?" he asked. "They should be."
One of those inspectors is Bob Berlyn, who believes that, in the short term, things will probably coast along. "But the aviation system in this country is very complex," he said. Accidents are not normally caused by catastrophic events, but a series of unrelated, inconsequential ones. He said, "Our job is to go out and identify those risks, and mitigate those risks."
The longer inspectors remain off the job, the greater the chance for risks to go unnoticed, and to get lost in a backlog of work, post-shutdown. "Most of the general public thinks that this is perhaps just an inconvenience," said Berlyn. "I think that it's important for them to realize that there is real consequences to not having people at work doing what they're supposed to be doing. "
The FAA announced it will recall 600 of the furloughed inspectors this week, but even so, the inspection backlog will continue to build.