AS MOST airlines in America are privately owned, many flyers might think that their journeys will be unaffected by the government shutdown there, which is entering its fourth week. But those that think that are wrong. Many staff that enable flights to take place safely—from aeroplane-maintenance inspectors to airport-security personnel—are employed by the federal government. And as the shutdown goes on, the impact on travellers will only get bigger. On January 11th the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the government agency that operates the security checks for passengers at airports, was unable to pay its workers, who have now been unpaid since December 22nd. On January 10th the number of workers calling in sick increased by 55% on the same day a year ago, according to the agency. And the situation is only likely to get worse. Miami airport has already been forced to closes one of its concourses due to a lack of TSA employees on duty.
TSA personnel shortages may increase waiting times at airport security for some passengers. It could lead to less thorough screening of passengers. But the shutdown’s effect on another federal agency could be more troubling. The Federal Aviation Administration, the industry’s regulator, is running short of aeroplane inspectors. It is still responding to requests from airlines, for example, to certify a plane for flight, but it is not conducting its routine oversight of airline repair shops and operations, leaving those tasks to the airlines themselves. “Do you like the fox watching the hen house?” one unpaid inspector told the TheNewsEditorial, a news agency. “Every day the government stays shut down, it gets less safe to fly.”
Still, John Goglia, a safety consultant who used to be on the TSA’s board, says airlines are doing their own rigorous inspections, knowing full well they may be audited when the government reopens. “I am working with one of those carriers right now,” he told CNN, a broadcaster. “And I can tell you there is absolutely no change in their operations.”
But there are more reasons to be concerned about the FAA’s operations. Increasingly overburdened air-traffic controllers could restrict the number or frequency of flights coming into and out of airports, resulting in delays. Meanwhile its other activities are grinding to a halt. Andrew LeBovidge, who leads the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a trade group, warned this week that because training programmes for aviation-security officials have been halted, the shutdown could have a “ripple effect” on staffing shortages for months or years to come. “We are already in a critically staffed situation, and with the shutdown, the training pipeline has been cut short and there is no relief in sight,” he said.
Pilots also cannot get their licences renewed from the FAA. If the shutdown ends soon, that might not be a problem, since most pilots apply for renewals well in advance. But if it drags on much longer, the effect on pilots and security officials could grow more dire. “At this point in time, the traveling public has not anything to be concerned about,” Mr Goglia told CNN. “Three months from now, I might not say that.”